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Diabetes Cases Double, Highest Rates in Oceania and Middle East

BY Talea Miller  June 27, 2011 at 1:22 PM EST

Insulin for diabetes. Photo by Flickr user Sriram Bala

The number of people with diabetes around the globe has more than doubled in the last three decades, to nearly 350 million people, according to new estimates.

The bulk of the increase — 70 percent — is attributed to population growth and a larger aging population, but 30 percent can be tied to an increase in risk factors that contribute to diabetes, especially obesity, report researchers from the Imperial College London and the Harvard School of Public Health. Lifestyle factors like physical activity and quality of diet, as well as genetic factors like ethnicity, also likely play a roll in the rise, the authors said.

Diabetes prevalence rose or at best remained unchanged in almost every part of the world between 1980 to 2008, the period examined by the study published this week in the journal Lancet. The rate has gone up worldwide by 1.6 percent, from 7.9 percent of the population to 9.5 percent.

Pacific island nations especially have seen rates of diabetes grow rapidly. In the Marshall Islands, one in three women and one in four men now have diabetes.

“Our study has shown that diabetes is becoming more common almost everywhere in the world,” said Majid Ezzati, chair of global environmental health at Imperial College London. “This is in contrast to blood pressure and cholesterol, which have both fallen in many regions. Diabetes is much harder to prevent and treat than these other conditions.”

China and India, with their large populations and changing standard of living, account for 40 percent of the global burden of diabetes, the researchers found. But the two countries’ prevalence rates are far lower than many countries from Oceania and several Middle Eastern countries.

Saudi Arabia has the fourth highest diabetes rate in the world, at about 22 percent, while Jordan, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates were also in the top 20.

Among high income countries, the United States tops the list with the highest prevalence of diabetes, around 11 percent in 2008, followed by Malta, Greenland and New Zealand. France and the Netherlands had the lowest rates, between 5 and 6 percent.

The journal pointed out that unlike infectious diseases, there is no global surveillance network for diabetes and that gathering data alone is a challenge. Researchers used glucose data from 2.7 million participants to extrapolate the trends.

Diabetes is a chronic condition that greatly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. More than 80 percent of deaths from the condition occur in low and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization, but global health advocates have struggled to draw attention to the problem in the developing world.

A new push to raise the profile of these types of conditions prompted the scheduling of a U.N. high-level summit on noncommunicable diseases, now scheduled for September.