The South African government has promised to intensify the fight against diabetes, one of the world's foremost experts on the disease, Professor George Alberti, said on Thursday.
Alberti, a past president of the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), was also the chairman of the organising committee of the IDF's World Diabetes Congress, held in Cape Town this week.
He said South African Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge had not only come to the opening of the congress, but attended some of the conference sessions "which I've never known a politician to do before".
He found this was "immensely encouraging".
"She gave a real commitment that diabetes would be way up the priority list in South Africa," he said.
He said that during an "inspirational" after-dinner address on Wednesday night, Madlala-Routledge had announced South Africa would be leading the Group of 77 developing nations in trying to get the United Nations to adopt a declaration on diabetes this year - "in the next few days", Alberti said.
A declaration would call on member countries to take diabetes and its prevention seriously, he said.
Though the declaration in itself was not very important, it would allow the IDF's 199 member associations around the world to pursue their governments to take action.
One of the reasons the congress was held in South Africa - the last one was in Paris - was that organisers felt the issue of diabetes was "very much underplayed" on the subcontinent because of the priority given to infectious diseases.
A silent killer
"It's what I call the silent killer, because you don't necessarily have many symptoms, certainly to start with.
"For the adult variety, Type 2 diabetes, which is 95 percent of the world's diabetes, it doesn't kill you suddenly.
"It hasn't attracted the [same] attention of something like HIV."
Alberti said the world was witnessing an "inexorable rise" in diabetes as the incidence of obesity increased.
Type 2 diabetes was occurring in younger and younger populations, who were getting heart attacks, strokes, and undergoing amputations, at the peak of their "life ability", in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
Latest figures put the incidence of diabetes worldwide at 246 million, which was going to rise to a "very conservative" 350 million by 2025.
As many as 350 million people could already be pre-diabetic, he said.
As much as 10 million deaths a year
A minimum of three million deaths a year worldwide were "speeded up" by diabetes, though given problems in identifying the disease from death certification, the figure could be as much as ten million, he said.
He said dietary change was particularly difficult on the Southern African subcontinent because people there saw putting on weight as an indication of success.
Anyone losing weight was looked on as probably being ill, or poor.
Political stance is needed
Governments could take a political stance on dealing with the food industry, and the need for recreation, and push diet and lifestyle education in schools.
They could use "sensible differential pricing" to make foods such as fruit, vegetables and fish a real option for people.
"What we need to do is change the way society looks after itself and its individual members, and that is one hell of a challenge," he said.
When he and colleagues helped the Mauritian government to change the import subsidy on cooking oil from palm oil to the healthier soya oil, there had been a 20 percent drop in cholesterol levels.
Earlier this week, the IDF's Africa region adopted a "Diabetes Declaration and Strategy for Africa" designed to raise community and political awareness about the disease.
It included an action plan for use in all sub-Saharan countries.
The epidemic of the 21st century
IDF president Pierre Lefebvre said diabetes was fast becoming "the epidemic of the 21st century".
Alberti said that apart from a few glitches, the conference, attended by 12 200 registered participants, had been "outstandingly good" organisationally.
This was in part due to the efforts of staff at the Cape Town International Conference Centre, who had "bent over backwards".
The conference, which closed on Thursday evening, is believed to be the biggest ever held in Cape Town. – (Sapa)
Diabetes and HIV numbers similar