Recently the reported rapid breeding of the Violin spider in Cape Town – allegedly due to good rain and hot weather – was the latest scam to spread like wildfire across social media platforms, causing significant concerns and some degree of panic.
This "fake news" phenomenon applies equally well to the host of miraculous cures touted for chronic diseases that social media users are now confronted with on almost a daily basis. For example, recently I was forwarded a WhatsApp message flaunting the next miracle cure: "For diabetes sufferers, cut the ends off a few okra, put in a cup with water overnight, the next day remove the okra and drink the water… Diabetes will go away and so will your shots. Tested on humans, the results, according to tests are miraculous! One volunteer said that their blood glucose decreased from 16 to 8. Share this, as it will help many!!."
Sound healthcare advice
Such examples alert to the significant dangers posed by fake health news as miracle cures, magic diets and untested herbal remedies are continuously circulated (and re-circulated!) on social media platforms with its far-reaching tentacles now reaching communities and families in even the remotest areas.
This year, the International Diabetes Federation’s (IDF) World Diabetes Day (14 November) focuses on family: "Diabetes concerns every family: could you spot the warning signs?’’ It raises the intriguing question whether families can indeed play a meaningful role to counter fake health news and simultaneously provide sound healthcare advice and support for relatives saddled with diabetes.
Previous research found that strong family support can indeed play a positive role to help diabetic patients better manage blood sugar levels, deal with stress and depression, and to also encourage the adoption of improved lifestyle choices.
A good starting point for family involvement is to gain a better understanding regarding the nature of the disease, e.g. risk factors and symptoms. This process of empowerment should include the sourcing of suitable information from well-established and reputable experts and/or professional bodies such as the IDF and others.
Well-informed persons will then be able to play a crucial role to help counter dangerous fake health news messages circulated on social media, and especially within family chat groups. This approach can also help prevent serious complications that may result from diabetic individuals actually implementing unsubstantiated advice. In this case a robust awareness of the need for verification of all health information circulated on social media platforms is vital. In addition to specialist websites of professional bodies, broader fact-checking sites such as snopes.com and/or hoax-slayer can also be consulted.
Growing global burden
As one in two persons currently living with diabetes remains undiagnosed, a greater understanding of well-known symptoms such as excessive thirst, frequent urination, lack of energy, blurred vision, slow healing wounds and numbness in feet and hands, should help to better address this problem. Informed family members can also provide the necessary emotional support, encourage activities to lower stress/depression, and promote improved lifestyle choices to help ensure improved well-being of their diabetic relatives.
Of note is that 80% of diabetes is preventable by adopting a healthy lifestyle – adequate exercise and physical activity together with balanced nutritional intake. For example, as several studies have demonstrated that the Mediterranean diet can decrease the risk of future diabetes onset and is also associated with improved blood glucose control; this is a good starting point.
Interpersonal relationships crucial
Family members can also provide practical assistance e.g. help with insulin injections and/or provide transport for doctor’s appointments as required. Ideally, such support should be shared equitably between family members to ultimately ensure the patient’s physical and psychological welfare and limit the occurrence of stressful situations. However, there should be a strong sense of realism in terms of goal-setting for lifestyle changes to be pursued, and advising family members should not to be too ambitious as this could lead to stress and potential conflict.
Is diabetes still then an issue to be concerned about on World Diabetes Day 2018? The answer is unfortunately a resounding "yes!". Here the continuing adoption of more sedentary lifestyle choices, poor dietary intake and increased stress remain significant contributors to the growing global burden of diabetes. Future projections also indicate that developing countries, including South Africa, will be hardest hit with significant implications in terms of overall health of the population, rising health care costs and the eventual impact on economic growth and development.
Concerted efforts (as mentioned above) are needed to counter such worrying statistics and projections. Interestingly, the 80-year Harvard Study of Adult Development found that inter-personal relationships are strongly linked to longevity and happiness. Thus it is an opportune time to endorse the IDF’s theme of focusing on the role of familial relations to aid with improved self-management by diabetic patients and to also help promote their physical and emotional well-being.
(Prof Faadiel Essop is a full professor in the Department of Physiological Sciences at Stellenbosch University and current president of the Physiology Society of Southern Africa.)
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