Malnutrition, AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis-all of these issues are some of the most widely publicized health problems facing developing countries. Curiously missing from this list is diabetes.
The disease affects 230 million people, 70 percent of which are in the developing world. Almost six times more people are living with diabetes than HIV/AIDS. Yet very little attention and aid has been directed to curb the astounding increase in numbers of people developing diabetes worldwide.
All too often when people think of diabetes, they conjure an image of an obese American sitting on a recliner, eating cheesy popcorn, watching reality TV-at least that’s what I used to imagine.
But people with diabetes don’t necessarily look as if they are toting around at least 100 extra pounds. And they are not necessarily lower- to middle-class Americans.
In fact, the reason many people in developing countries are developing diabetes is because they have begun to adopt American ways. Cultures that used to value leisure time over income are now reverting to growth models that require longer work hours and faster-paced schedules. There is less time for exercise and less time to grow or make food at home. Sedentary lifestyles become the norm and fast food and high-calorie, high-sugar beverages replace traditional diets.
This is especially dangerous in India and other Asian countries, where one study showed that genetic differences could make some populations more prone to developing the disease compared to others. The study found that an individual of Indian descent is at a higher risk of developing diabetes at a lower body mass index calculation as compared to his or her Caucasian counterpart.
The danger in underestimating the effect diabetes has on the developing world is two-fold. First, the population’s physical illness increases the costs healthcare programs have to spend on diabetes, which takes away valuable resources that need to be directed to fighting the many other communicable and non-communicable diseases in the developing world.
In the late 1990s, the World Health Organization (WHO) predicted that costs related to diabetes would account for one-third of health budgets worldwide by 2017.
Even with that warning, many developing countries did not allocate sufficient funds from the budget to prevent and treat those with diabetes. And individuals left untreated are the largest burden on the system among diabetes patients. Untreated or ill-treated, diabetes can lead to kidney failure, heart disease, stroke and blindness.
Due to the lack of government response and a deficient amount of worldwide aid, a majority of diabetes patients in the developing world pay more than two-thirds of their personal expenses to treat the disease.
The second effect diabetes has on the developing world is a significant impact on the population’s workforce. Lost productivity due to disabled workers or absenteeism can cost countries more than one would expect in the long term. The WHO released statistics in 2006 that estimated that China would lose approximately $500 billion in national income over the following decade.
More attention needs to be paid to this non-communicable disease, which is debilitating already stuttering economic markets and overwhelming poorly structured governments. There needs to be more than money flowing into developing countries. Experts need to meet with health ministers, councils need to be established and cooperation needs to occur among countries most affected by this disease in order to share best-practice models and pertinent statistics.
Developed countries must be willing to provide guidance and possibly negotiate intellectual property rights agreements with developing countries if anything is to be accomplished to curb the rate at which people are developing diabetes worldwide.
Private firms need to step in where the government is unable to provide healthcare for its citizens. Benefits and insurance need to be offered more often and at better rates in order to support those with diabetes who often cannot pay out-of-pocket for related expenses.
What I’m suggesting is not out of the ordinary. I saw heads of corporations, presidents of non-governmental organizations and diplomats discuss the issue at length when I was abroad and attended meetings related to the topic last semester. Yet, currently, the pace of action is too slow.
Many developing countries have yet to participate in the dialogues and seriously consider changes to their healthcare system. Few employees are able to cover diabetes-related expenses with their insufficient insurance plans. Non-governmental organizations are often under-funded.
Right now, it’s all talk, no action. The question is, who will be the first to step up and when?