Today, November 14, the World Health Organization joins the international community in observing World Diabetes Day 2018, which this year focuses on “The family and diabetes”. This theme underscores the impact of diabetes on individuals and families, and the important role they play in the prevention and control of the disease.
Diabetes is a serious, persistent disease in which blood sugar is elevated. It may either be due to the pancreas not producing enough insulin (type 1 diabetes), or the body being unable to effectively use the insulin it produces (type 2 diabetes). Over 90% of diabetes is type 2 diabetes. If not well controlled, diabetes may cause blindness, kidney failure, lower limb amputations and other complications.
Since 1980, the occurrence of type 2 diabetes has risen dramatically in all countries of all income levels. The African Region has experienced a six-fold increase, from 4 million in 1980 to 25 million in 2014. This is due to aging populations and lifestyle changes, including unhealthy diets and a lack of physical activity. Overweight and obesity are the strongest risk factors for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other noncommunicable diseases.
I recall Pascale from Benin telling me that diabetes runs in her family — her parents, a brother and six aunts were all overweight and diagnosed with the disease. They passed away because they didn’t make the necessary changes to manage it. Pascale was shocked when she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes but decided not to let diabetes take another person from her family. She learned as much as she could about the disease, and made lifestyle changes by choosing healthy foods and jogging regularly. She controlled her diabetes, rather than letting it control her.
While family genes can be the cause of diabetes, family support can be a key benefit for people with diabetes. For instance, families can choose to buy and serve healthy and balanced diets, encourage participation in physical activity, and promote healthy living environments. Prevention of type 2 diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases should begin early in childhood and continue throughout life.
Unfortunately, in many settings in Africa, half the people living with diabetes type 2 are unaware of their disease and are not receiving treatment. Early diagnosis and treatment are important for preventing complications of diabetes. Since diabetes can potentially strike any family, awareness of the signs, symptoms and risk factors is important to help detect it early.
Having diabetes can also drain family finances when people with diabetes have to pay out of their own pockets for treatment. Disability or premature death due to diabetes can push families into poverty. Diabetes is also a huge burden on the health care system and the national economy.
But there is hope. Recently, world leaders agreed to take responsibility themselves for their countries’ effort to prevent and treat noncommunicable diseases, including diabetes. They committed to implement public education and awareness campaigns to empower individuals and families with information and education to prevent diseases like type 2 diabetes, and ensure that people have access to early detection, diagnosis and treatment. Governments should accelerate access to such services for everyone, through people-centred primary health care and universal health coverage.
WHO will continue to support governments to improve the prevention and control of diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases. I urge everyone to eat healthily, be physically active and avoid excessive weight gain. Families can help to drive down diabetes through promoting healthy lifestyles and supporting family members with diabetes. We all have a role to play.