There are four times more people living with diabetes today than there was in 1980. On the eve of World Health Day, which focuses this year on how to "beat diabetes", the World Health Organization (WHO) says the number of patients with the condition has reached an all-time high of 422 million compared to 108 million in 1980.
In its Global Report On Diabetes, the WHO also emphasises that priority should be put on prevention and research for treatments. Diabetes directly caused 1.5 million deaths in 2012, and led to 2.2 million further related deaths mainly due to a raised cardiovascular risk. However, the report's authors say many of these deaths could have been avoided by promoting healthier habits and improving care and treatments of the disease.
Promoting healthy lifestyles
The report points out that the diabetes "epidemic" is fuelled by unhealthy lifestyles, and by rising obesity. It is indeed a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. In 2014, over a third of adults worldwide were overweight and more than 1 in 10 were obese.
The WHO advocates population-based prevention strategies. For example, smoking is a risk factor for diabetes and the report highlights that it can be reduced by a combination of legislative, regulatory, fiscal and educational measures. These include graphic warnings on cigarette packs, bans on advertising and increased tobacco taxes.
More importantly, the organisation says that healthy eating and exercising should be even more promoted than it already is. An adequate diet includes replacing saturated fatty acids with polyunsaturated fatty acids and eating enough dietary fibre (present in lentils, beans, peas and other fruits and vegetables). The WHO has published a complete set of guidelines that can be checked on its website.
"If we are to make any headway in halting the rise in diabetes, we need to rethink our daily lives: to eat healthily, be physically active and avoid excessive weight gain," Dr Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, said in a statement.
Increasing access to different medicines
The Sustainable Development Goals, signed in 2015, introduced the so-called target 3.4, which strives to reduce premature deaths from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by 30% by 2030. In order for this to be achieved, more needs to be done to increase availability and affordability of life-saving medicines. In the case of diabetes, access to insulin is crucial, but there are huge inequalities worldwide with regards to accessing it.
"Around 100 years after the insulin hormone was discovered, the Global Report On Diabetes shows that essential diabetes medicines and technologies, including insulin, needed for treatment are generally available in only one in three of the world's poorest countries," points out Dr Etienne Krug, director of WHO's Department For The Management of NCDs, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention.
To beat diabetes and make the World Health Day's slogan become a reality, countries still have a long way to go.