Diabetes Becoming Epidemic

Experts Warn of Diabetes Becoming Epidemic
By Maggie Fox

HELSINKI, Finland (Reuter) – Diabetes, a leading cause of death in many countries, is becoming a truly global epidemic, experts told a conference Monday.

Drug therapy for the illness has improved little since insulin injections were developed in 1921 and the best hope is to change the way people live, they said. Diabetes affects at least 135 million people worldwide. By 2025, the World Health Organization predicts, that number will reach 300 million.

“I think we can truly say that the epidemic is here and now,” Paul Zimmett, chief executive officer of the International Diabetes Institute, told a news conference.

“Unless we do something dramatic, I expect diabetes to be one of the major killers in the world in the year 2010,” said Jack Jervell, president of the International Diabetes Federation. “What is bothering me is that developing countries will bear the brunt of this epidemic,” he told the 9,000 delegates to the 16th International Diabetes Congress.

Jervell said complications from diabetes killed 2.8 million people around the world every year. About 10 percent of victims have type-one or insulin-dependent diabetes, which is often genetic in origin. The rest have type-two or non-insulin-dependent diabetes (NIDDM). It kills by causing heart disease or kidney failure and, if untreated or poorly treated, can cause blindness or vascular problems that lead to damage of the limbs, and other complications.

Zimmett said that up to half of all people with diabetes did not even know they had it. Symptoms are vague — tiredness, thirst and a need to urinate frequently are common as the body tries to flush away excess blood sugar that builds up as the pancreas fails to produce insulin. By the time damage to tissue and blood vessels that marks the disease shows up, it can be too late.

People who were not at risk before were now developing diabetes, Zimmett added. While diabetes used to hit mostly those over the age of 50, cases were becoming common among people in their 20s and 30s. Rates were soaring in populations that are suddenly becoming modern and westernized, such as Australian aborigines, Pacific islanders, native Americans and even among black children.

“Our black population have a shocking rate of death from diabetes,” Zimmett, a professor at Australia’s Monash University, said. “The majority of new cases will be of type-two diabetes and will be in China, the Indian subcontinent and Africa,” he added. But the traditional medical approach of controlling diabetes with a low-fat, low-sugar diet, moderate exercise, and careful monitoring did not work with these new populations. “They think their diabetes is due to the fact that the white man has taken away their lifestyle,” Zimmett said.

A better answer would be for societies to change — to encourage minority populations to stick more to their traditional ways, he said. “I don’t think bringing in more drugs is going to help,” he added. Jervell called for even broader changes in all societies, with a renewed emphasis on exercise and healthy diet.