Diabetes: Africa’s silent killer?

posted in: Africa

Photo: guardianlv

Sowetan Live

It is one of the biggest threats to the health and wellbeing of Africans across the continent, yet diabetes continues to be a grossly underestimated threat. This is largely because many sufferers are completely unaware that they even have the life threatening disease and only seek help when they present with the complications associated with the disease. In South Africa alone, 90% of the country’s 3.5 million diabetics have Type 2 diabetes which is a preventable disease. Small wonder that diabetes has been dubbed a ‘silent killer’.

This World Diabetes Day (14 November), one person who will be passionately campaigning for diabetes awareness and care is South Africa’s First Lady Madam Bongi Ngema-Zuma. Having grown up with close family members including her mother suffering from the disease, Mrs Zuma has a profound understanding of the effects of this disease, leading to her establishing the Bongi Ngema-Zuma Foundation for diabetes prevention and care in August 2010.

This year the foundation hosted its annual event in honour of World Diabetes Month, on Saturday, 09 November, partnership with the Ngove Royal Council in Limpopo.

Approximately 5,000 people attended the event, which will included a 5km walk, as well as free screening and testing and diabetes education, in which Ngema- Zuma, together with Deputy Minister of Health Dr Gwen Ramokgopa participated.

Ticking time bomb

Ngema-Zuma has a vision of reversing the frightening growth of diabetes across the country. In South Africa the disease is now the country’s third highest cause of death, according to figures just released by Statistics South Africa.

And across Africa, diabetes has become a ticking time bomb, afflicting more than 15 million people on the continent. This figure is expected to double by 2020. This is the finding of the International Diabetes Federation, which reported in 2012 that some 371 million people worldwide had diabetes. That number is expected to increase to 552-million in the next 20 years with a further 398-million people at high risk to develop the disease.

Spreading the message

Now in its fourth year of activism, Ngema-Zuma’s foundation continues to experience significant challenges in breaking the grip of ignorance surrounding this disease. “There is still a huge amount of work that needs to be done in Africa and even more so in South Africa”, she says.

She points out that the burden of diabetes on individuals, families, communities and health services will increase substantially if no action is taken. She is very concerned about the impact of the disease on government’s resources and its capacity to provide access to health and other social citizen services.

“We also need to be aware that diabetes sufferers are more vulnerable to communicable diseases like TB, HIV and Aids which are also placing a profound burden on our society,” she says.

Contributing factors

So why are so many people developing diabetes and why is it expected to double in the next twenty years?

She attributes this to rapid urbanisation. “We are seeing more and more people adopting a westernised diet, full of processed, sugar-laden carbohydrates as well as unhealthy convenience foods. Advances in economic standing mean that people are also able to afford to buy more food, and are eating more. We need to teach people about the importance of portion control and eating in moderation,” she says.

“Children should be educated from a young age and at a school level to inculcate a healthy lifestyle and that they need to be physically active. “Studies show that the prevalence of diabetes can be reduced by 25% through an increase in physical activity. Sport must also be a part of the school curriculum to encourage sufficient levels of activity but this can only occur with the right amenities,” she asserts.

A further challenge, says Ngema-Zuma, is that diabetes is lumped with non-communicable diseases and therefore isn’t given the same time, attention or even funding as more high-profile, communicable diseases. As a result, diabetes is not treated as seriously as it should be and people are not aware of the devastating ‘on the ground’ effects of this disease.

Looking ahead

Looking at the bigger picture the First Lady says we all have the responsibility to work together to inform and educate each other about diabetes. Everyone also has the responsibility to be screened at their nearest clinic.

“Diabetes is not a death sentence. Let’s bring it out in the open and call it by its name. People need to know exactly where they stand and realise that that they can live a healthy and productive life despite having diabetes,” she asserts.