Hard as it may be to believe, 65% of the world’s population lives in countries where obesity kills more people than malnourishment or the headline-grabbing illnesses of HIV/Aids and TB put together.
Recent statistics show that 1.4 billion people around the world are overweight - a figure that has doubled since 1980 - and chronic conditions associated with a hefty girth range from gout to diabetes to heart disease. In short, the biggest threat to public health is no longer a dearth of kilojoules but an excess of them - and the impact of this is being felt at individual, community and economic level.
Speaking at a media briefing at Novo Nordisk headquarters in Copenhagen recently, the President of the World Diabetes Foundation (WDF) highlighted this disturbing trend, especially as it relates to diabetes.
“With diabetes, when one person suffers, the whole family suffers,” says Dr Anil Kapur, “and the financial burden for people in low-income countries can be very heavy indeed. This is because of inadequate healthcare services and poor or non-existent medical insurance. In fact, in many of the world’s poorest countries, people with diabetes and their families bear almost the entire cost of medical care – assuming they can afford medical care to begin with.”
Indeed, World Health Organisation (WHO) figures indicate that chronic diseases such as diabetes account for 60% of deaths worldwide every year, and that 80% of these occur prematurely in low- and middle-income countries. Similarly, chronic diseases account for the vast majority of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) by income group.
It comes as no surprise, then, that not only is the human toll of obesity-related illnesses high, but the impact on societies in transition is particularly onerous. According to Dr Ayesha Motala of the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a one-year increase in life expectancy for people living with diabetes translates into a 4% increase in GDP, a make-or-break difference in developing countries.
Once considered rare in Sub-Saharan Africa, 12 million people were living with the condition by 2010, and medical experts estimate that a quarter of these - approximately 3.5 million people - are to be found in South Africa. More sobering still is the fact that this number is expected to double by 2030.
Diabetes prevention better than cure
"This growing epidemic is linked to rapid urbanisation, increasingly inactive lifestyles, unhealthy eating habits and rising levels of obesity," says Dr Timmy Kedijang, General Manager of Novo Nordisk South Africa. "Once people move into urban areas, they become less physically active and tend to eat a diet that is higher in fats, processed foods and refined sugars than people in the rural areas do. This, in turn, leads to a higher level of obesity which, together with a lack of exercise, increases the risk of developing diabetes significantly.
"Experts therefore agree: while medication may be important in the treatment of diabetes, managing the condition is about more than just handing out prescriptions.
“People living with diabetes can expect to live long, healthy and active lives,” says Dr Kedijang, “but diagnosis, treatment and lifestyle management are essential if this is to happen. That is why our primary goal at Novo Nordisk is to educate people about the condition.”
While it is the leading company in diabetes care, it still believes in the old-fashioned adage that, in the case of diabetes, prevention is better than the cure. And that holds true for the individual as well as for the economy.
- (Novo Nordisk press release, November 2012)
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