It is estimated that more than 500 million people worldwide will have diabetes in 20 years’ time. As World Diabetes day was commemorated last week, people have been warned to take better care of their health by reducing their risk of getting diabetes.
About six million people in South Africa have diabetes and most of these people are unaware that they have this condition. Internationally, it is estimated that about 347 million people in the world have diabetes, up from 153 million 30 years ago. Experts in the medical field warn that the numbers will double in 20 years’ time if people do not actively take responsibility for their health.
“If things continue as they are the numbers of people with diabetes will go up by 50%. The current projection is about 550 million people in the world will have diabetes, but we think that things are probably going to change. By informing patients about decreasing diabetes, the chances of diabetes and the consequence of diabetes through better control, exercise and diet, hopefully those numbers will change significantly”, says Professor Gerald Brock from the University of Western Ontario, Canada.
Professor Block says unhealthy lifestyle is a major contributing factor to diabetes.
“This has become a trend. We are seeing increasing rates of diabetes and obesity in South Africa. It probably relies largely on decreasing exercise, higher rates of food consumption. Lack of physical exercise and diet are the two main drivers for the increasing rates of both adult and childhood obesity”, she says.
Diabetes is a chronic illness where the body cannot control its blood glucose levels properly. About 85% of the population with diabetes in the country has what is called Type 2 diabetes, meaning it is more of an acquired condition and it’s reversible.
“The Type 2 diabetic patient is typically over-weight, lacks physical exercise and the important message there is that it is something they can change by changing their diets and begin to exercise. Those people will no longer be diabetic. The insulin resistance or lack of the insulin doing its job in that individual is because they are not exercising, hence, they have obesity problems”, says Professor Block.
According to clinical research physician, Dr Lebo Masunyane, the majority of people are not well informed about diabetes and how serious the condition is.
“A lot of people know diabetes because they have relatives who have it or their parents and grandparents (have it). But they do not perceive it as serious as other conditions like hyper-tension and HIV, which is mostly the concern of most people in the nation.
They are not aware of what causes diabetes. So, we need to raise awareness about this and educate the children”.
Dr Masunyane says a leading problem associated with the lack of awareness could be that there are no clear symptoms of diabetes, with only a few to share.
“You might have some vague symptoms such as slow wound healing, recurrent infections, recurrent urinary tract infection, especially… gum disease, tiredness or sometimes nothing at all. Then you will get excessive urination in some patients, but often, it might be silent and go unnoticed for many years and because of that about 78% of the African continent does not know that they are diabetics”.
He stresses the importance of parents controlling what their children eat at a young age because the repercussions will only be seen in 15 to 20 years’ time. Dr Masunyane says taking the time to prepare a proper meal for them may just save their life in the long run.
“We’re sometimes under pressure where we don’t have time to go and cook a nice healthy meal. But there needs to be a more hard line approach in terms of nutrition, from what we pack in their lunch (boxes) to what they buy at school from the tuck shop. We need to limit the access they have to bad diets. They need to know from a young age and be encouraged to eat vegetable and fruits. More and more we are seeing heart attacks happening in the second decade of life. We need to be very strong in terms of nutritional education for our children and how often we give them junk food”, says Dr Masunyane.