Diabetes is a serious chronic disease that occurs due to the body’s inability to produce insulin, which regulates sugar levels in the body (Type 1), or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces (Type 2). A recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the global prevalence of diabetes has nearly doubled since 1980, rising from 4.7 percent to 8.5 percent. This trend is particularly troubling, as diabetes prevalence has risen faster in low and middle-income countries. In many of these countries, diabetes is an added burden to states already struggling to deal with weak economies, weak health systems and significant infectious disease burdens. This is especially true for African countries. Here are six facts about diabetes in Africa:

  1. The prevalence of diabetes in African adults has more than doubled since the 1980s. The International Diabetes Federation estimates that more than 14 million people in Africa live with the disease and if trends continue this figure could grow to 34 million by 2040.
  2. The increase in diabetes (Type 2) cases in Africa is largely attributed to changing lifestyles. A large percentage of people with diabetes (58 percent) live in cities. Traditional diets are changing to more high-calorie refined carbohydrates and fats which are more readily accessible and affordable than healthier options. Occupational patterns are also changing leading to physical inactivity and a more sedentary lifestyle.
  3. Most African countries have healthcare systems already struggling to keep up with other illnesses like HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and diarrheal diseases, all of which seem more pressing than diabetes. As a result, Africa has the highest percentage of undiagnosed people (an estimated two-thirds) who are at a higher risk of developing harmful and costly complications. These complications include heart disease, strokes, damage to eyesight, kidney failure and loss of limbs.
  4. Awareness is one of biggest issues when it comes to diabetes in Africa. Limited awareness about the disease among both healthcare professional and the general public contributes to the high number of neglected cases or misdiagnosis. Better education about the importance of healthy diets and physical activity is necessary.
  5. Access to affordable insulin is another challenge faced by many diabetics in African countries. Almost a third of diabetics need insulin to treat their disease. While many African countries have health programs that provide more affordable insulin at public clinics, the supply can be erratic or patients have to travel far to a clinic with supplies. If public healthcare providers do not have insulin, patients are forced to buy more expensive private sector insulin or go without. This is one of the leading causes of the 321,000 diabetes-related deaths every year in Africa.
  6. Insulin is not the only expense. Access to blood glucose meters, test strips and syringes are also essential for diabetes treatment. The high cost of these medical devices, coupled with the treatment of complications due to the disease, increases the burden of disease on patients and health systems.

While the current facts about diabetes in Africa are dire, efforts are being taken to address this challenging disease. Diabetes awareness and treatment programs are being developed by states, civil society and the private sector. For instance, one of the three main manufacturers of insulin, Novo Nordisk, has programs in several African countries to improve awareness about diabetes and to improve the availability and affordability of treatments.

Helena Kamper

Photo: Flickr