Experts in Australia are warning that a diabetes epidemic could destroy indigenous populations around the world, with cultures in Asia, Australia, the Pacific, and the Americas particularly vulnerable. The dire prediction is being made on World Diabetes Day.
The spread of diabetes among indigenous people has been blamed on Western lifestyles and diets.
Researchers at an international conference in Melbourne warn that diabetes is the "biggest epidemic in human history." They say the disease could wipe out some indigenous populations.
Diabetes is a chronic condition in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone that is needed to process sugar and other foods. Even when treated, diabetes can lead to long-term health problems and premature death.
Modern diets that are high in fat and sugar and rising obesity levels have led to an increase in diabetes worldwide. But many indigenous groups, such as Australia's Aborigines, are particularly prone to diabetes because their bodies have trouble adapting to such rich diets.
About one in four Aborigines in Australia has Type Two or late-onset diabetes.
David Shultz from the Nunkuwarrin Yunti Aboriginal health service in South Australia says diabetes increases the risk of other serious conditions.
"There are a lot of other quite severe illnesses which unfortunately diabetes predisposes to," he explained, "so it tends to lead to a high incidence of heart disease and kidney disease and eye disease. I have seen younger and younger people dying of the consequences of diabetes out in bush (country) communities."
The researchers in Melbourne say there are similar problems among New Zealand's Maoris and Pacific islanders as well as among native tribes in the U.S. and Canada.
Experts say the situation is not irreversible. More affordable health care and nutritious food are key factors. They also say it could be more important to tackle the social and economic disadvantages that many indigenous groups face, since poverty is linked to higher diabetes rates.
Australia's Aborigines make up about two percent of the country's population of 20 million. They suffer disproportionately high levels of poverty, unemployment, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.