Healthy choices best defence
Month-long activities to raise awareness about diabetes will end on Sunday, but far from over is the devastating impact this global pandemic continues to have on thousands of Barbadians.
“Over five million people [globally] died from diabetes last year.
“That is one person every six seconds, or 600 people an hour, says leading British scientist Frances Ashcroft, professor of physiology at the University of Oxford, as she delivered the 39th Sir Winston Scott Memorial Lecture under the theme A Tale Of Genes And Sugar this week.
“Incidence of the disease has increased over the last 50 years or so . . . and it is estimated that by 2035, 592 million of us will have the disease,” she revealed.
There are 40,000 people living with diabetes in Barbados, and Professor Ashcroft has cautioned this is unsustainable, pointing out that the problem exceeds the situation facing developed countries.
“It [diabetes] consumes 30 per cent of the health care budget, which is about two per cent of the gross domestic product; and that is four times as much in the United Kingdom which spends an astronomical 1.5 million pounds an hour to treat diabetic complications.
“It’s even more than in the United States where over $US245 billion was spent in 2012; and this huge amount of money is expected to increase as diabetes levels rise. So this is clearly unsustainable; it is not realistic that we should spend the whole of our health care budget on treating diabetes.”
According to the professor, diabetes is actually characterized by increasing levels of sugar in the bloodstream, which is caused by a lack of sufficient insulin.
“It is very important that your blood sugar levels are controlled, because if they drop too low you will pass out and eventually you could quickly die in a few minutes because your brain is starved of fuel; but if it is too high for too long you could develop chronic complications.”
While noting that there are several types of diabetes, Ashcroft said Type II diabetes, which results from a combination of genes, age and lifestyle, is the most concerning.
A key factor driving the high incidence of this form of diabetes is obesity, which is also deemed a global pandemic.
“The global cost of obestity is at $2 trillion . . . . The cause of the epidemic is quite clear; we are eating too much and exercising too little.”
Professor Ashcroft said the consumption of sugary drinks was among factors fuelling weight gain and she urged Barbadian authorities to seriously consider imposing a tax on sugar.
Noting that the action which had already been taken by some countries had face strong resistance, she said: “This is something Barbados needs to keep in mind, because even though sugar no longer dominates the economy it still accounts for about eight percent of exports,” adding that decisive measures were needed to stem obesity.
The leading researcher however pointed out that diabetes was not simply the result of obesity.
“Not all fat people will get diabetes. What protects them? Not all old people will get diabetes. So what protects them? And many thin people have diabetes. So we really wanted to know what causes their disease.”
Her curiosity led to landmark research which examined how the rise in blood sugar caused insulin to be released in the pancreas.
She discovered a tiny protein pore, which is found in the membranes of the insulin secreting cells.
The Oxford professor explained: “When the pore is open insulin is not released, and when it’s shut insulin is released.”
She also noted that there were mutations resulting from accidents of nature which might lead to disease.
In one mutation she worked on, the protein pore remained open, insulin was not released and glucose levels remained high which led to diabetes.
What Ashcroft and her colleagues realized was that the pores could be closed by drugs, sulfonylureas, which is provided to patients who are born with the disease, and are dependent on regular insulin injections.
The scientist discovered that the drug could be used to close the pores and release insulin.
Professor Ashcroft’s work has also enabled children born with diabetes to switch from insulin injections to tablets.
Despite her success, the noted scientist advised that wise lifestyle choices were the best defence against diabetes, and she urged Barbadians to take charge of their health.
“The best way to avoid diabetes, to live long and prosper is to eat a sensible diet. Restrict your caloric intake and do regular exercise. This is not a message that most people want to hear.
“Science cannot produce a magic pill that will allow you to eat as much as you like . . . so it is crucially important for both the individual and the state that each of us take personal responsibility of our health; and we must always take care of our children.”