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Diabetes

Updated 18 November 2019

SA's alarming diabetes prevalence - we're in the top 10 countries for growth in diabetes cases in the last few years

The last few years have seen an explosion of diabetes in South Africa. This dangerous trend is linked to a multitude of health issues – and complications can be deadly.

Diabetes is a serious global problem, and over the last three decades the number of diabetes cases have increased drastically, taking a physical and financial toll on many countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) projects that by 2030, diabetes will be the 7th leading cause of death.

According to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), 38 million more adults are now estimated to be living with diabetes globally, compared to figures from 2017. In total, 463 million adults are living with this disease, and the number is expected to increase to 578 million by 2030.

Even more worrying is that, according to new findings published in the 9th Edition of the IDF Diabetes Atlas, South Africa is currently in the top 10 countries for absolute increase in diabetes prevalence.

The IDF report also indicates that of South Africa’s adult population, 12.8% are currently living with diabetes. Translated to numbers, that’s a staggering 4.5 million people. Even more concerning is that, of these 4.5 million people, more than two million remain undiagnosed and are therefore particularly at risk.

Type 2 diabetes a cause for concern

Diabetes is a disease where blood sugar levels are above normal. Most people have type 2 diabetes, where the body becomes resistant to insulin, which means that their bodies then become unable to absorb glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream.

When we talk about type 2 diabetes, most of us think of older people, but diabetes does not discriminate and has an impact on people of all ages, including children. In fact, more and more young people are being diagnosed with the disease.

Type 2 also accounts for 90% of the total number of people living with both types of diabetes. Type 2 remains an invisible epidemic as it is not linked to clinical symptoms, which is why many people remain undiagnosed or are diagnosed when it’s too late. The IDF notes that type 1 diabetes is also on the increase, but the reasons for this are unknown.

The rise in the number of people with type 2 diabetes is brought on by a complex interplay of socio-economic, demographic, environmental and genetic factors, explains the IDF, and this rise is putting a strain our healthcare systems’ ability to guarantee regular and affordable access to essential medication for patients.

Preventing and managing diabetes

If left untreated, people with the disease are at risk of serious and life-threatening conditions, including:

  • Heart disease (increases your risk for heart attack)
  • Stroke
  • Kidney disease (increases your risk of kidney failure or going on dialysis)
  • Blindness
  • Lower limb amputation

Type 2 diabetes is often caused by poor diet, excess body weight and a lack of physical activity, which ultimately puts pressure on the body’s ability to use insulin.

However, the good news is that there are things we can do to reverse this worrying trend. There is evidence that type 2 diabetes can be prevented, while early diagnosis and access to appropriate healthcare for all types of diabetes can avoid or delay complications in people living with the condition.

The best medicine might be education. Research has shown that even with modest weight loss and regular exercise, you can reduce your risk of developing diabetes by up to 58%

Do you suspect you might have diabetes?

If you suspect you may have diabetes, look out for the following symptoms:

  • Frequent thirst
  • Tingling in the hands and feet
  • Frequent urination
  • Blurry vision
  • Cuts and bruises that heal very slowly
  • Overall fatigue

However, some people have very mild symptoms or none at all, so if you have a concern, it is best to speak to your healthcare provider about being screened and possibly prevent long-term complications of the disease. A diagnosis of diabetes can be scary at first, but remember – it is manageable.

*World Diabetes Day is held on 14 November each year and is a global awareness campaign focusing on diabetes mellitus. 

Image: iStock
 

Ask the Expert

Diabetes expert

Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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