Diabetes is a silent killer in Africa. In comparison to other diseases such as AIDS or malaria among others, diabetes rarely makes any news headlines. Neither does it attract funding. Yet, the statistics of people affected by the disease in the continent are quite shocking and merit public health and policy-making and funding attention.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 10 million people in Africa have diabetes. The disease is also ranked as the fourth leading cause of death in developing countries, and the number of people suffering from diabetes is expected to rise to almost 20 million by 2025.
The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) contends that diabetes is already a major public health problem in Africa and its impact is bound to increase significantly if nothing is done to curb the rising rate of impaired glucose tolerance (IGT), which now exceeds 16% in some countries.
In addition, IDF projects that the prevalence rate will shoot up by 95 percent by 2010 from the current 0.5 to 3 percent range across the continent.
“Many people, including children, die from lack of insulin, and it is likely that many die of diabetes before even being diagnosed, let alone treated,” states the IDF. “Still more suffer debilitating consequences of diabetes such as amputation and blindness.”
For many people in Africa, diabetes is not a major concern. Compounded with little public health information about diabetes, many people wait until it’s too late to seek medical attention for diabetes.
And, to make matters worse, diabetes-related drugs are in scant supply in many parts of Africa.
In view of this, the escalating threat that diabetes poses to the region requires urgent attention on the part of government, donors, public health systems, policy-makers and the local community.
Government in the region need to invest in low-cost strategies to prevent the onset of the disease. According to IDF, low cost strategies that alter diet, increase physical activity and modify lifestyle that can reduce the impact of diabetes while simultaneously addressing risks of other disease areas.
As it is today, many governments are doing little to nothing to fight the problem of diabetes and the long-terms costs of non-action will be huge. Public health systems need to ensure the continuum of care from pre-diabetes through diagnosis, routine monitoring and care, to the onset of complications and palliation. Furthermore, there should be a provision of adequate, appropriate and affordable medications and supplies for people with diabetes.
Political will is definitely a critical element to ensuring that the disease gets the attention that it deserves. The media (particularly radio which is prevalent in most remote and rural parts of the continent) also has a key part to play in ensuring that the message of diabetes prevention, diagnosis and care reaches a wider audience.
After all, diabetes is everyone’s business, and individuals, communities, non-governmental organizations, private business, funders and governments in Africa need to up the ante in fighting the disease.