There are now four times as many people in the world living with diabetes today than in 1980 and poor diet and a lack of exercise are largely blamed, according to a report by the World Health Organization. In Africa, the prevalence of diabetes has more than doubled in that time, which may be due to better personal incomes versus poor public spending.
While the rate of diabetes remains comparatively low in Africa, the number of people living with diabetes has jumped from 4 million in 1980, to 25 million in 2014. For one of the world’s youngest regions, that number is worrying for a number of reasons.
Since diabetes is a lifestyle disease, an increase in the disease could be a symptom of growing prosperity, as people are able to afford more processed foods. It’s also a sign of a more sedentary lifestyle as more people spend their working days sitting down.
However, Africa’s relative prosperity has not yet translated to more sound public healthcare systems. In developing countries, diabetes is an added burden to states still dealing with historical sociopolitical inequalities and weak economies. Plus, developing countries have other illnesses—biological and social—whose immediate effects have seemed more pressing than diabetes.
“Most of these countries are also burdened by communicable diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and diarrheal diseases. Political unrest, poverty and poor leadership with substandard policy regulation and corruption, illiteracy and low education standards are rampant,” said endocrinologist Sundeep Ruder in The Conversation.
“Governments need to guide policy to create environments that are conducive to attaining health goals. Trade measures and agricultural policies need attention. The marketing of foods high in sugar, fats and salt—especially to children—requires attention.”
Some governments have tried this. In Botswana, a high middle-income country known for its political stability and large diamonds, rapid urbanization contributed to national rate of diabetes becoming nearly twice as high as the average rate in Africa in 2012, according to local media reports. In South Africa at least 58 people a day died of diabetes in 2012, according to Statistics South Africa. In both countries, national health campaigns have urged earlier screening, and a better lifestyle – with South Africa’s health minister starting with the menu in parliament.
But for most countries, these advertising campaigns are already too costly, and treating the existing cases even more so. Treatments like medical insulin need to be made available and screening and detection must be improved. Ruder believes that the activism around treatment for HIV/Aids should be adapted to diabetes campaigning.