DESCRIBED as a “diabetes tsunami”, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the widespread scourge of diabetes in South Africa.
Dubbed “the silent killer” because early symptoms are often undiagnosed, diabetes has been identified as the highest risk factor to Covid patients, with the prevalence of diabetes higher in KwaZulu-Natal than anywhere else in the country.
The calamitous impact of the disease during Covid-19, and finding solutions, will be the core focus of the Diabetes Summit on Wednesday, November 10, which will be open to the public.
Diabetes Alliance chairperson Bridget McNulty said this week that the organisation, in co-ordination with the University of Pretoria’s Diabetes Research Centre (DRC), will present the inaugural summit.
An urgent and co-ordinated response was needed to the “country’s exploding diabetes crisis”, she said.
“Instead of just telling people about diabetes in South Africa, we’ve invited all those living with and working with diabetes to join us in co-creating SA’s first Diabetes Charter which will be launched at the summit.
“Do South Africans really need another summit? Yes, especially one about diabetes and especially in the wake of Covid-19 which was devastating for people with diabetes,” said McNulty.
According to research presented in the SA Medical Journal (2016), “the crude prevalence of diabetes for KZN was 12.5% which was higher than the known prevalence of 9.2%”, she said.
“This could be as a result of the large number of South African Indians in KZN, as there has been shown to be a strong genetic pre-disposition to Type 2 diabetes in SA. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to have an SA Diabetes Summit ‒ and Charter. Our multicultural society needs specifically South African solutions to the diabetes crisis,” said McNulty.
Type 2 diabetes was “too often explained away as a lifestyle condition ‒ that people who eat the wrong kind of food, don’t move enough and carry extra weight are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, she said. While this is true, the hereditary predisposition of Type 2 diabetes is a critical component.
“We have all been affected by this growing epidemic. Every person in South Africa knows someone or has a family member living with diabetes. Undiagnosed, untreated and uncontrolled diabetes is leading to serious complications. People with diabetes have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and many have died.”
Dr Patrick Ngassa Piotie from the University of Pretoria’s Diabetes Research Centre described it as a “diabetes tsunami”.
“We have decided to act and confront the diabetes tsunami so that South Africa is never again found unprepared when facing a health challenge similar to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Piotie.
Taking place ahead of World Diabetes Day on November 14, the goal of the summit is to “build back better” in terms of the SA response to diabetes.
Piotie said collaborative work streams were working together to outline evidence-led challenges and propose solutions in five themes (according to the World Health Organization’s Global Diabetes Compact).
Each theme will tackle different aspects of the disease from awareness, prevention, education, management and access to care, as well as innovation and research.
According to a Stats SA report this year on Covid-19 reducing life expectancy, “the age-mortality profile of the disease indicates that older people and those with comorbidities, specifically diabetes and hypertension, face a higher risk of mortality”.
In June 2020, the Western Cape Department of Health found that “out of every 100 people within the public health care sector who died of Covid-19, 52 had diabetes, followed by 19 with hypertension and 12 with HIV”, while previous data indicated that in the 40-60 age bracket, diabetes was the leading comorbidity.
An earlier report (pre-Covid) by Stats SA found that diabetes was the number one killer of women in SA and a leading cause of death in men, while a 2019 report by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) found that one in two people with diabetes were undiagnosed.
The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Professor Suna Kassier said the IDF recently reported that there were 1.8 million South Africans with diabetes, and estimates an additional undiagnosed population of 69% of the total number of diabetics.
“The African continent is expected to see the highest increase in diabetes globally by 2045,” said Kassier, adding that due to a lack of national data, the results of numerous smaller studies were combined to determine the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes at a national level.
“The results indicated a prevalence of 15.25% in individuals 25 years and older,” she said.
Also this week, the University of KwaZulu-Natal confirmed the signing of a memorandum of understanding in Cape Town with the International Centre for Genetic Engineering (ICGEB) to facilitate biotechnology developments in developing countries ‒ which will address providing cost effective medicines and treatments for life-threatening diseases such as diabetes.
The ICGEB’s Council of Scientific Advisors (CSA) director general Dr Lawrence Banks was in Cape Town to sign the agreement on Wednesday with UKZN and the director-general of the Department of Science, Dr Phil Mjwara.
“This ground-breaking agreement will see the university partnering with local companies to develop advanced biotherapeutics (biosimilars) for the treatment of diabetes, cancer and other diseases,” said UKZN.
UKZN represented by deputy vice-chancellor, research and innovation, Professor Mosa Moshabelo, and the dean and head of School of Clinical Medicine, Professor Ncoza Dlova, will be responsible for conducting clinical trials within the next year.
“This will allow, for the first time, access for poor people to these expensive life-saving medicines,” said the statement, adding that “the biotechnology innovation landscape is re-positioned to benefit the poor, in a partnership that also includes industry,” said the statement.
The CSA includes some of the world’s top scientists including Nobel prize winners in medicine. It has three global centres ‒ Trieste (Italy), New Delhi (India) and Cape Town (South Africa).
To attend the Diabetes Summit, to be held on Wednesday November 10 from 9am to 1pm, online, or for more information, go to: www.diabetesalliance.org.za/diabetes-summit.
The Independent on Saturday