Africa has a total of 1,067,573 confirmed COVID-19 cases spanning across 47 affected countries. The continent has not seen a dramatic spike like the rest of the world, but COVID-19 poses a serious complication for Africa’s other prevailing pandemic — diabetes. An estimated 19.4 million adults across 48 sub-Saharan countries have diabetes. This far exceeds COVID-19 cases and persists as a problem for Africans in general. South Africa’s dual epidemics of diabetes and COVID-19 may prove to be a challenge for the country. However, the situation is not completely bleak. Effective actions are taking place to help those suffering from both illnesses.
Diabetes and COVID-19
Diabetics who are well-managed are at a lower risk of suffering from the disease COVID-19. In contrast, patients who do not manage well are more likely to experience fluctuations in blood glucose readings and an increased risk of complications related to diabetes. For those with co-morbidities, such as heart disease — the chance of becoming seriously ill if they develop COVID-19 is much higher. As with most viral infections, the body has a difficult time staving off infections. These infections can cause internal swelling or inflammation, which can exacerbate further complications.
Type 1 diabetics contracting a viral infection are at a higher risk for diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which can cause septic shock or sepsis in COVID-19 patients. Moreover, those with type 2 diabetes share this increased risk of getting severely ill.
Impact on South Africa
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, diabetes ranked among the world’s leading causes of death. In South Africa, the number of diabetics is still unknown, as an “accurate current date on the prevalence of diabetes in South Africa is quite difficult to find as there are no recent robust studies in all provinces in South Africa.”
Since July 16, 2020, approximately 42% of diabetic patients with COVID-19 have died from the virus. While this data does not indicate that diabetes creates a higher risk of contracting the illness, it does demonstrate that a higher risk of becoming severely ill upon infection. In the Western Cape, 52% of COVID-19 deaths were diabetics. Those with inadequate blood glucose control had an increased chance of infection.
One apparent reason that many diabetics in South Africa have succumbed to the virus is due to patients delaying hospital care until becoming seriously ill.
Diabetes Action Plan
The Western Cape has taken significant measures to create more promising outcomes for people living with diabetes. The Department of Health, for instance, has committed to contacting all known diabetics and assisting with COVID-19 symptom monitoring, diabetes management and early admission into hospitals.
This intervention has proven successful. As department spokesman Mark Van der Heever stated, “out of the 63 [patients receiving government intervention], three of the admitted patients have died, 40 of the admitted patients have been discharged and the remaining 20 patients are not in clinical distress.”
Sweet Life, is an NGO at the forefront of the diabetes epidemic in South Africa. Notably, it has amassed a following of 22,000 members in its Facebook Community. The organization aims to deliver information and guidance to those living with diabetes in South Africa. Also, it has created a partnership with the National Department of Health (NDoH) to achieve this goal.
Sweet Life works with the Diabetes Alliance to deliver training and education to those in need. The Diabetes Alliance was formed in September 2019. It has been instrumental in unifying companies, organizations and associations in the fight for effective diabetes management. The Alliance has partnered with the NDoH to create an education project to help healthcare providers and patients learn more about diabetes. Moreover, these initiatives have compiled helpful tips and information for those impacted by diabetes and COVID-19.
Prevention is Key
Diabetics living in South Africa can remain healthy during the pandemic by ensuring their conditions are properly managed and monitored. Maintaining notes of blood glucose readings, regular exercise and healthy diets should be sufficient to stave off serious complications.
South Africa’s dual epidemics of diabetes and COVID-19 have undoubtedly taken a toll on the nation. However, with effective intervention programs from organizations like the Department of Health, there is hope that the country will continue to see improvement among diabetic patients.
– Michael Santiago