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Health Officials Worried About Growing US Diabetes Epidemic - 2002-03-28

In an effort to stem the growing U.S. diabetes epidemic, the Bush administration is calling attention to a precursor condition. Government health officials urge doctors to screen for the condition.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department says more than three percent of Americans or 17 million, have Type Two diabetes, the adult version of the disease. The high-blood sugar levels caused by diabetes increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, and amputations.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson says just has many people have a precursor condition called pre-diabetes in which blood sugar is elevated, but not high enough to be called diabetes.

"The reason pre-diabetes is so serious is because most people who have it will develop Type Two diabetes over the next decade, and people with pre-diabetes are also at an increased risk for cardiovascular [disease], which is the number one killer of people with diabetes," he said.

Pre-diabetes is a condition doctors call "impaired glucose tolerance." Like full diabetes, it is increasingly common in the United States as more Americans become obese. So, as part of a public relations campaign to combat the condition, the government has given the condition a simpler name.

Also Wednesday, Mr. Thompson unveiled new screening guidelines that encourage doctors to routinely test the blood sugar levels of overweight patients aged 45 or older.

"While today's pre-diabetes initiative focuses mainly on adults, we need to pay close attention to our children as well," he said. "I'm especially concerned because obesity-related Type Two diabetes is on the rise in children, especially African-American, Asian-Americans, and Hispanic children and adolescents."

The new screening guidelines recommend that doctors test young adults for pre-diabetes if they belong to one of those ethnic minority groups, are overweight, have a diabetic relative, have high blood pressure and bad cholesterol readings, or have delivered a baby weighing more than average.

One of the physicians who helped develop the guidelines, Judith Fradkin of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, says studies show that diabetes is easily prevented with a moderate diet and exercise.

"Diet and exercise resulting in a five to seven percent weight loss lowered the onset of Type Two diabetes by 58 percent in people with pre-diabetes," he said. "In people 65 or older, who have nearly a 20 percent prevalence of diabetes, diet and exercise reduced diabetes incidence even more dramatically, by 71 percent."

U.S. health officials say that diabetes costs the country $100 billion a year, a figure they say could double in a decade if all those with pre-diabetes become diabetics.