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Why there’s been a dangerous diabetes spike around the globe

According to a new study from the World Health Organization, diabetes cases have quadrupled over the last 40 years, mostly in poorer nations. Today, 8.5 percent of all adults worldwide suffer from the chronic disease, and 3.7 million deaths are linked every year. For more on the emerging health crisis, William Brangham talks to Dr. Etienne Krug of the World Health Organization.

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    And now, an alarming new report about the dramatic growth of diabetes across the globe.

    The World Health Organization said today that an estimated 422 million people are now suffering from this chronic lifelong disease.

    William Brangham has more.


    The WHO's report tracked the global rise of diabetes over the last 40 years. And it showed a quadrupling of the number of cases worldwide. It's now estimated that 8.5 percent of adults in the world have the disease, and the costs are tremendous. An estimated 3.7 million deaths every year are linked to diabetes and higher-than-normal blood sugar levels.

    The fastest growth of the disease has been in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

    Joining me now is Dr. Etienne Krug. He's the World Health Organization's point person for dealing with diseases like diabetes.

    Dr. Krug, these are genuinely shock numbers. How do you explain this incredible growth of diabetes?

  • DR. ETIENNE KRUG, World Health Organization:

    Well, we have seen a steady growth now for several decades, which largely, particularly for people with type 2 diabetes, is linked to our changes in the way we eat and changes in our levels of physical activity.

    We are seeing more and more unhealthy eating and a reduction in physical activity, which contributes both to overweight, which in turn is a big cause of type 2 diabetes.


    We tend to think of diabetes as a disease that afflicts wealthier nations, but your report indicates that poorer countries are increasingly bearing a bigger and bigger burden.


    For a long time, diabetes was considered the disease of the rich countries. This is not the case anymore, and the report clearly shows that rates are now higher in lower- and middle-income countries than in the high-income countries.

    It is a total reverse of the situation, what it was. And the increase is steeper in those countries as well.


    The health impacts of diabetes, as we described are, really quite striking. I'm wondering, do you have a sense of the economic cost of this disease?


    The total cost of treating diabetes is more than $827 billion every year. So, it's a very high number, and that's only the direct cost. It's not even talking about lost productivity, for example.


    Diabetes requires lifetime, costly medical care. Do you have any sense of whether these nations have the medical infrastructure to deal with these patients over the rest of their lives?


    Diabetes is a disease that's there to stay for the life of an individual, and it does require a lot of different responses.

    It's important to mention that a lot of it doesn't have to be costly. Just through healthier eating and more physical activity, type 2 diabetes can be reduced quite a bit. And it is an issue that's important, also, for type 1 diabetes.

    But then we need to have access to diagnostics and to treatment. And, today, 23 percent of the lower-income countries say they don't have a good, widespread access to insulin, for example, which is a lifesaving medicine for people with diabetes. And that means we need to work on supply chains, making sure those medicines reach even the poorest countries and the poorest corners of those countries, as well as on the prices, because we know that some types of insulin, for example, are too expensive.

    And we have to make sure that even poorest people, who need them just as much as the rich ones, have access to them.


    Let's talk about possible remedies. What is it that can be done? Is it education? We have seen some faltering attempt here in the U.S. to try to tax sugary beverages. Mexico has done that. The U.K. is trying that. Is that a possible solution?


    It is a combination of measures that are needed.

    Clearly, all of us have to make an effort in terms of healthier eating and more physical activity, but that is not going to be enough. And particularly when we look at the poorest countries, people don't have access to the information, but also don't always have the choice to eat healthily or to do more physical activity.

    So, the governments have an important role to play in terms of providing information, but also making sure healthier choices are available. And that can be done through legislation in terms of content of food, through taxation, as you have mentioned. These are important measures that can work.

    And then we need to also think about our urban planning, for example. One of the causes to overweight is urbanization. People cannot walk and cycle safely anymore to work or to school. And making sure our cities are healthy and provide opportunities for safe walking, cycling, physical activity in general is extremely important.


    All right, Dr. Etienne Krug of the World Health Organization, thanks very much.


    Sure. No, thanks very much for having us and supporting our work.

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