40 years on
The Diabetes Association of Jamaica, 1976
IT WAS just last week I received a call from the sight team of the Lions Clubs and the 1970s flashed back. That was a period of great awakening in the health arena. The Lions Clubs of Kingston and St Andrew had been challenged by Dr Henry U. Shaw, the then custos of St Andrew and senior medical officer at the Kingston Public Hospital, to take an interest in diabetes as it was being realised that diabetes was a leading cause of blindness. This was stated in his address to the clubs, which had and still have as their mainstream interest ... sight.
Such was the beginning of the diabetes association when officers of the clubs invited stakeholders to meet and discuss meaningful interventions into this emerging malady ... diabetes mellitus. The team would be drawn from doctors, nurses, dieticians, pharmacists, physiotherapists, Lions, Lionesses, Leos et al ... and I was the new kid on the block, having just returned from post-graduate medical studies in the United Kingdom and expressing an interest to specialise in this ‘curious disease’ known as diabetes.
The planning expanded into meetings which
aimed at educating the public in general, persons with diabetes in particular, and specifically the healthcare team as to the growing importance of this condition which threatened to become a major public health problem, making extensive adverse claims on the quality of life for people with diabetes, their support groups and communities, as well as a costly burden to families and the public purse.
The association was launched in June 1976 and it was off to a challenging start as many persons were hesitant to admit that they were affected by the condition. It was not until we started public meetings, teaching the known and accepted facts about the condition and offered free checks of eyes, blood sugar, heart and feet that the throngs swelled.
Important at this time was the introduction of the new technology where blood sugars could be measured in a drop of blood obtained by a fingerpick and inserted, via a test strip, into a small smart tabletop machine which read the result in one minute. Bravo! No need to
go to hospital nor medical laboratories and wait days to receive results, and that breakthrough was facilitated through Glen Christian at H.D. Hopwood Distributors Company.
How to reach the population was the next hurdle, and we started large and, small meetings around the island in church halls, schools, community centres and, largest of all, at the University of the West Indies Assembly Hall.
The first patron of the association, Ranny Williams (aka ‘Maas Ran’), issued radio clips during popular talk shows, under the title ‘You did know seh?’, and the people were listening to this well-known comedian and dramatist.
A breakthrough was achieved in the late 1980s when Sir Alister McIntyre, the then vice-chancellor of UWI, admitted to the public that he suffered from diabetes and encouraged all so affected to avail themselves of the support being offered through the diabetes association. People began coming ‘out of the wormwood’.
Then the two heroines of the Caribbean in the diabetes story came on board. Sylvan Alleyne at UWI revealed from her social
studies that persons were not adhering to advice given by the health-care team and were being adversely influenced by the cultural practices of folk medicine; and Alma Mock Yen, communications specialist also at the UWI, waged war through infotainment on radio programmes. She regularly reached over 30 per cent of the population, a feat unheard of anywhere in the world, and the international community all beat a path to the radio education unit at UWI to better understand how it was done. That is how the awareness heightened and was won, and I sat at their feet.
The membership of the association grew and its work intensified. It opened doors for the dieticians, foot care specialists, community health workers, embracing them firmly within the health-care team and empowering them to execute their relevant activities, all in the interest of pursuit of the mantra given to us by then patron of the association, Jean Seaga-Anderson – ‘Until there is a cure, let us give the care’.
Assistance from the International Diabetes Federation (Canada, USA, UK, EU) allowed us to
pressure for better prices for insulin and supplies, and this contributed to the tremendous input that was to be offered by the National Health Fund as it evolved its health insurance scheme.
We were itinerant, having first a home in the diabetes outpatient department at UHWI, then to 72 Hope Rd, then to 1 Downer Avenue, where we currently house the headquarters from which the islandwide activities are coordinated.
Our association’s development would guide the region to develop associations in all the Caribbean islands – English, French, Spanish and Dutch – and lead to the formation of a Diabetes Association of the Caribbean
Then came Lurline Less, an association member and diabetic; Owen Bernard, British war veteran and chiropodist, both of whom would anchor the continued evolution of the association. Outreach and in-house clinics served the public daily, ably assisted by professionals volunteering their services in the fields of medicine (WrightPascoe, Cunningham-Myrie, Wright, Persaud, Gordon, Morrison, Forrester, TullochReid); nutrition (Griffith, Ragoobirsingh, Callendar, Hamilton, Edwards); foot care (Dodd, Bernard); eye
care (Mani, O’Sullivan, Manjunatha), support groups led by Hing, Murphy, Stephenson, Matalon, McIntyre.
It was Sir Alister McIntyre’s intervention that got under way the regional conferencing and training updates put on annually by the University Diabetes Outreach Programme since 1993. It continues to today with the largest annual international conference on diabetes in the Caribbean, serving some 600-1,000 participants drawn from Jamaica, the wider Caribbean, the Americas, Europe and the Far East. It embraces UWI, UTech, NCU, and the Diabetes Association of Jamaica and streams its contents via YouTube worldwide.
The diabetes association, in the latter 1980s, spawned an annual camp for diabetic children, now known as Camp Yellow Bird and spearheaded by Dr Gabay, dietitian/nutritionist Griffith, Owen Bernard, parents and friends. It was first held at the then West Indies College in Mandeville under the auspices of the principal and diabetes researcher, Dr Herbert Thompson. It now seeks a home of its own.
Specialists came in ... nephrologist Everard Barton
and businessman Dennis Ennis, and tremendous support from private sector such as WISYNcO and Kiwanis service clubs, helped get kidney dialysis under way in 2000.
And now turning full circle, the UWI (Dr Mowatt) brings importantly back into the forefront of our services, SIGHT and its preservation. This is helped from as far afield as Australia, whose push is for assisting children and adolescents in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.
With over 100,000 persons being served annually throughout the island, we can look back and thank the stalwarts (Lions Crawford, Stephenson, Matalon, Montague; Leos Martin, Allen; Drs Hagley, Richards, Christian, Hall; volunteers Hing, Murphy; patrons Williams, Seaga-Anderson; heroines Alleyne, Mock Yen) who all stood by us, believed in us and helped us along the way as we pursued our mission of ‘each one help one, and he who knows more lives longer’.
And the work goes on...!