‘The next health pandemic’


IF THERE is one thing the coronaviru­s pandemic is teaching us, it’s that we’re capable of making dramatic changes when we need to.

As a nation, South Africans can unite to protect our health. But while Covid-19 presented as an immediate, loud threat, the next health epidemic is silent – and pervasive. Our next challenge is here and it’s diabetes.

The diabetes epidemic in SA

Look at the person to your left and right on your next Zoom call. One of the three of you has pre-diabetes. You won’t see it immediatel­y, as with coronaviru­s, and there’s not nearly as much media hype around it, but the risks are real – and preventabl­e. Diabetes is the number one killer of women in South Africa, according to Statistics South Africa. It can lead to blindness, amputation and heart disease. But it’s not a lethal condition – not if you’re aware of it and make a few simple changes.

A third of us are at risk for diabetes

Where do we get these numbers from? The people who took advantage of free blood glucose tests in National Diabetes Month (November 2019): 35% of them had abnormally high blood sugar, putting them in the prediabeti­c range – with an additional 5% testing as diabetic.

The recently released South Africa Demographi­c and Health Survey 2016 shows that these numbers are actually too low. They report that high proportion­s of women (64%) and men (66%) are pre-diabetic (adjusted HbA1c level of 5.7%-6.4%).

“Thus, a large proportion of adults are either not aware of their conditions, or are not aware that they are at risk for diabetes,” said the report.

Diabetes and Covid-19

What makes this urgent is the fact that diabetes is a risk factor for Covid19, and that the death rate is higher among those who have diabetes, obesity and hypertensi­on. So the fact that at least a third of our population has pre-diabetes with no knowledge of it means that we are at greater risk of more serious Covid-19 cases.

What is pre-diabetes?

The World Health Organizati­on (WHO) considers blood glucose levels of below 5.5mmol/l to be normal: those of 7mmol/l and above are considered diabetic.

Between these two cut-off points lies the pre-diabetic range: 5.5 to 7mmol/l.

The good news? If you have pre-diabetes, you can make diet and lifestyle changes and bring your blood sugar levels back to the normal range.

This dramatical­ly reduces the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

But only if you know you have it. According to WHO, 80% of cases of diabetes, 80% of heart disease and 40% of cancer could be prevented by avoiding tobacco, increasing physical activity and adopting a healthy diet. It is globally recognised that, in the case of non-communicab­le diseases and especially diabetes, prevention through lifestyle changes is critical and cost-effective

What this is, really, is a gift: advance warning that your body needs some help to prevent a chronic condition.

To find out more about living well with diabetes visit za

McNulty is spokespers­on for Diabetes South Africa

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