Diabetes is a major public health problem -- an epidemic -- in the United States.
One out of 10 people over the age of 20 now has diabetes -- primarily Type 2 or "adult onset" diabetes -- and the disease is rapidly increasing. This increase has been particularly striking in the several Southeastern states comprising what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls the "Diabetes Belt."
In Kentucky, for example, one out of eight people now has the disease, a frightening fact. Even more frightening is the fact that 25 percent of those with diabetes do not know they have the disease!
If this epidemic is not interrupted, by 2050 about one out of three people in this country will have diabetes. For minorities, that figure will be closer to one out of two.
Diabetes itself poses a significant health problem, but the real burden of the disease is its complications.
These complications are BAD: Blindness, Amputations and Dialysis. The high blood sugar levels characteristic of diabetes, plus the effects of high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels, damage both small and large blood vessels. Over time, those with diabetes frequently go blind, have a toe or foot amputated, lose the functioning of their kidneys and then frequently die of a stroke or heart attack.
The cost of diabetes is staggering. In 2025, the annual direct and indirect cost of diabetes to the country is projected to exceed $500 billion.
Here's what we need to do about this epidemic.
First, we need to focus on primary prevention of the disease, and that means stressing proper nutrition and regular exercise. Early childhood is the time to begin good dietary habits, and the conscious selection of food for school snacks and lunches provides an excellent opportunity for establishing these habits.
With young people and adults, a structured program of weight loss and exercise can prevent the onset of diabetes among about half of the overweight population that has elevated but not diabetic levels of blood glucose.
At the community level, we need active engagement by local health departments and officials interacting with the population. We recommend the creation of broad-based community diabetes control and prevention councils, with health providers, business leaders and teachers, along with diabetes patients and their advocates.
At the state level, we need mandatory screening of all adults, and compulsory reporting of all new cases of diabetes to a state diabetes registry.
Strong support from the federal government must be provided for these efforts, and for local health departments.
Diabetes prevention will require a significant change in the behavior of patients, health providers, communities and government.
This will not be easy, but the current fragmented way in which we deal with diabetes is not working.
It is long past time for greater public recognition of the grave threat that the diabetes epidemic poses -- and for a rational, coordinated response to it.
Gilbert Friedell and Isaac Joyner are the co-authors of The Great Diabetes Epidemic: A Manifesto for Action. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Gilbert Friedell and Isaac Joyner.
Photo: Flickr user Tony Alter, creative commons licensed.