By World Health Organisation
Africa is expected to experience the highest increase in diabetes globally. The number of people suffering from the disease is predicted to rise to 55 million by 2045—a 134% spike compared with 2021.
At 70%, the continent also has the world’s highest number of people who do not know they have diabetes.
Dr Bernadette Adeyileka-Tracz, Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Diabetes Africa, a non-profit organization working to improve the health of Africans living with diabetes, explains the challenges in diabetes prevention and care in the continent.
What are the challenges a person living with diabetes faces in Africa?
The number one challenge for a person living with type 1 or type 2 diabetes in Africa is diagnosis: people living with diabetes may not know they have the condition until serious complications develop. That’s because “looking healthy” is not the same as “being healthy.”
How has COVID-19 made their situation worse?
COVID-19 has certainly increased risks for people living with diabetes. People living with diabetes are more likely to have more severe symptoms of COVID-19. Research is still ongoing, but anecdotal evidence coming from Africa tends to corroborate research done in the United Kingdom and in the United States of America.
The sudden global focus on health may have encouraged some people to control their diabetes better and make an extra effort, but in general, COVID-19 and its associated restrictions has meant that people became more sedentary, experienced stress and anxiety and had more difficulties keeping a healthy diet and controlling their diabetes.
Luckily, in most instances, hospitals and healthcare providers acknowledged these challenges and made a special effort to allow people living with chronic conditions to receive face-to-face care. Telemedicine has helped in countries where phone calls and video calls were a workable option, for example in Nigeria and Kenya. However, in other countries, such as Uganda for example, the cost and technical challenges of telemedicine were often prohibitive.
How can countries innovate and manage diabetes in a low-resource setting?
It’s difficult to look at diabetes in isolation and ask how we could do more with less. Adequate healthcare demands a basic level of resources and given their impact on the overall system, noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes remain largely underfunded.
This is regrettable because managing health in a low-resource setting would benefit from actions that reduce costly complications, such as early diagnosis and prevention of diabetes. People who stay in the hospital with COVID-19 often have comorbidities. Can we not address these comorbidities at the source?
One of the greatest innovations in a low-resource setting would be to change mindsets: consider investing in keeping people healthy, rather than fixing problems. There will always be emergencies and costly operations that cannot be avoided. But diabetes need not be the cause of them.
This involves an effort to train healthcare professionals, inform and train people who may be at risk, sharing knowledge at a much greater scale, which is what Diabetes Africa aims to do. This would also entail working with commercial organizations, in particular in the food and beverage industry to label products and help people make informed decisions.