Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

HEALTH-MEXICO: Preventing Diabetes Cases from Doubling Over Next 20 Years

Adrián Reyes

MEXICO CITY, Aug 4 2005 (IPS) - Six-year-old Rosa is diabetic and needs regular insulin injections. She is one of eight million people with diabetes in Mexico, where the health authorities are struggling to prevent that number from doubling in the next 20 years.

The Mexican health ministry has been waging an aggressive campaign aimed at the prevention, detection and early treatment of diabetes. As a result, the number of Mexicans diagnosed with the disease has doubled in the last decade.

Nevertheless, there are still a great many people in this country who have diabetes but do not know it, and by the time they are finally diagnosed, they could have already suffered irreversible damages to their health, experts warn.

Rosa has Type 1 diabetes, which results from the body’s failure to produce insulin. When she was diagnosed at the age of five, she told IPS, her mother started to cry, because "she didn’t understand what it was."

But today, "they taught me about the things that are bad for me, and my mom is really careful about what I eat. I can’t eat the things that all the other kids eat," she explained.

"I’m sick, and my mom is teaching me how to take care of myself. At school, I only eat the food she makes for me, and I inject my insulin, too," Rosa added.

Every year in Mexico, diabetes is responsible for over 45,000 deaths, a statistic that the health ministry recognises as alarming.

Diabetes is currently the third leading cause of death in Mexico, after heart disease and accidents.

Diabetes mellitus, the scientific name for the disease, occurs when the body does not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas which serves to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy.

This lack or insufficient use of insulin results in overly high levels of glucose or sugar in the blood, and the accumulative long-term damage can lead to such complications as blindness, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, amputations, and nerve damage.

There are two main types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes develops when the body is unable to produce any insulin, which means those who suffer from it need regular insulin injections. It usually appears before the age of 30, and quite frequently in children and adolescents.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body does not effectively use the insulin that is produced. It usually appears after the age of 40, and particularly affects people who are overweight and physically inactive. Although insulin injections or tablets are sometimes required, it can most often be treated with diet and exercise alone.

Elisa Andrade, 26, told IPS that both her father and brother are diabetics. Thanks to the training the family received from the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS), a government agency that provides public health care coverage, she is able to help them watch what they eat, while they themselves learned how to give themselves insulin injections and check their own blood glucose levels.

The case of Socorro Rivas, 37, is quite different. After being diagnosed, she fell into a deep depression. Her health deteriorated progressively until she finally got the professional help she needed to deal with the disease. It was only then that she began to watch her diet and take the medications she needs to avoid developing further health problems.

In their efforts to curb the advance of diabetes, the Mexican health authorities have stressed the need for much of the population to change their eating habits. The last two decades have seen a significant increase in the consumption of saturated fats, starches and carbohydrates, as well as sugary carbonated soft drinks.

IMSS director Santiago Levy believes it is urgent to raise awareness among Mexico’s 104 million people, because consuming large quantities of these kinds of foods and being overweight increases the risk of developing diabetes, although hereditary factors also play a role.

Levy noted that diabetes is the leading cause of death between the ages of 55 and 64. Diabetics are also twice as likely to develop high blood pressure, and four times as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke.

A major national campaign launched in Mexico not only provides information and guidance to people who already suffer from the disease, but also educates the general public about ways to avoid developing it.

The IMSS has distributed over 43 million health care guides that stress the importance of healthy lifestyles, including balanced nutrition and regular exercise, as well as regular medical check-ups.

Statistics from the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) indicate that between eight and 12 percent of adults in Mexico have diabetes, while around 194 million people around the world suffer from this chronic illness, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

PAHO also notes that 90 percent of diabetes cases in Latin America are Type 2, which can progressively worsen and require the administration of increasing amounts of insulin if it is not treated properly or early enough. Nevertheless, the organisation adds, with adequate health care, a balanced diet and exercise, diabetics can considerably improve their quality of life.

In the meantime, specialists at the public National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the Children’s Hospital of Mexico are working on developing alternative treatments for the disease.

In late 2000, they carried out the first transplant of cells from neonatal pigs in diabetic children. So far, the children provided with this treatment have been shown to require 65 percent less insulin on average than before the transplant.

Evaluations are still underway to patent this technique, which would primarily benefit children with Type 1 diabetes.

Another initiative undertaken by the government of President Vicente Fox to decrease the incidence of diabetes is a campaign against obesity, one of the main risk factors for developing the disease, particularly Type 2 diabetes.

One in every three Mexicans over the age of 20 is overweight or obese, as are 35 percent of the country’s school-aged children, according to health ministry statistics.

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