Contrary to widespread belief, diabetes is not rare in sub-Saharan Africa. In an article included in the June 26th special diabetes issue of the Lancet, Dr. Jean Claude Mbanya and his associates outlined what is currently known about diabetes in that region. The statistics may surprise those who are unfamiliar with modern life there.
Just as in the developed world, lifestyle change brought on by rapid urbanization—decreased physical activity and increased consumption of energy-dense and high-fat diets—is believed to be a major contributor to the rising burden of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease now being seen even in many historically impoverished nations, wrote Dr. Mbanya, president of the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), and his colleagues.According to the IDF’s Diabetes Atlas, there are now about 12.1 million adults with diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa. That number is projected to nearly double, to 23.9 million, by 2030. Currently, more than a third of the population of sub-Saharan Africa live in urban areas. That is expected to increase to 45% by 2025. And by 2035, more people are expected to live in urban than rural areas.
While diabetes rates of less than 3% have been reported in rural and some urban communities, frequencies of 3%-10% have been noted in urban populations, comparable with rates in developed countries. In urban parts of Dr. Mbanya’s native Cameroon, for example, the diabetes rate rose from 1.5% in the 1990s to 6.6% in 2003.
In most of sub-Saharan Africa, existing health care systems are typically devoted to “the unfinished agenda” of communicable disease, not to chronic noninfectious conditions. There is no medical insurance or free national health care available in most countries, so patients themselves have to pay. “Thus, when an individual with diabetes cannot afford the cost of drugs, the situation could be fatal,” the authors wrote, also noting that mortality rates attributable to diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa are highest in working-age adults aged 20-39 years.
“Agents such as generic glucose-lowering drugs and antihypertensive treatments should be funded just as drugs for HIV/AIDS are, along with support for delivery mechanisms and chronic disease education and care models,” they recommended. In addition, “A multidisciplinary, politically driven, and coordinated approach in areas of health, finance, education, sports, and agriculture can contribute to a reversal of the underlying cause of this epidemic.” Indeed, that’s a good prescription for the entire world.
-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)