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Diabetes a Growing Health Menace in Africa

  • Jessica Berman

FILE - A syringe filled with insulin.

FILE - A syringe filled with insulin.

In sub-Saharan Africa, problems with communicable diseases, like HIV, malaria and ebola are common. But adult-onset diabetes is being seen more often in the region, in many of the world’s poorest countries, where doctors and medical facilities are not prepared to deal with the serious health problem.

Diabetes now affects 21 million African men and women, a number that authors of an article in the journal "The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology" say is expected to climb to 35 million in the next 20 years.

They estimate the prevalence of undiagnosed diabetes is 62 percent in middle-aged adults, with those younger than age 60 making up three-quarters of deaths related to the condition.

The problem, says Harvard University global health expert Rifat Atun, is not so much tied to economic improvements, as in other westernizing countries, but to the social and lifestyle transitions now taking place in Africa, "such as no exercise, changing jobs, and migration into urban areas without adequate green space and options for exercise - are all [meeting] to trigger this change.”

Atun also says there’s a move away from agrarian occupations, meaning less physical activity for many Africans.

African Health Infrastructure Not Ready

Atun, the article's co-author, notes the medical infrastructure and technologies in sub-Saharan Africa are heavily geared toward responding to communicable diseases, such as HIV, TB and malaria, not non-infectious diseases such as diabetes.

The challenge, he says, is to make hospitals, clinics and health personnel more responsive to the treatment of diabetes, a chronic illness that requires intensive lifelong monitoring and treatment.

“We’re not saying there should be less funding for communicable diseases," he stressed. "But what we can do is to raise awareness to address this issue now as opposed to wait for 30 years, or 10 years even, to have a major crisis on our hands.”

Atun says an international commission of health policy experts, economists and governmental representatives will be formed to consider ways to strengthen health systems – to prepare for the rising epidemic of diabetes in Africa.