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Published in: 04/07/2016

The number of people with diabetes in the Americas has tripled since 1980

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One in 12 inhabitants—some 62 million people—live with diabetes in the Americas. The number has tripled since 1980, and diabetes is currently the fourth-leading cause of death in the hemisphere following heart attacks, strokes and dementias. If current trends continue, experts estimate that nearly 110 million people in the region will have diabetes by 2040.

The first Global Report on Diabetes from the World Health Organization (WHO) is being launched this week in Geneva and Mexico City as part of the 2016 World Health Day campaign, which dedicated to diabetes. The WHO report highlights the urgency of stepping up efforts to prevent and control diabetes, particularly through public policies that support healthy lifestyles and by ensuring that health systems are able to promptly diagnose, treat and care for people with diabetes.

"The best way to prevent diabetes is for people to follow a healthy diet, avoiding ultra-processed foods and sugary beverages that are high in calories and low in nutrients, and to engage in regular physical activity to help maintain a healthy body weight," said Carissa F. Etienne, Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), WHO's Regional Office for the Americas. Preventing diabetes, however, "is not just an individual responsibility," Etienne noted. Rather, governments need to adopt effective public policies and measures that help "make the healthy choice the easiest choice to make."

Diabetes is a progressive chronic disease characterized by high levels of blood glucose. It is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, lower limb amputation and other long-term health problems that have a significant impact on quality of life and increase the risk of premature death. In addition, medical care for diabetes and its complications take a high financial toll on families and health systems. In 2014, diabetes-related health spending in the countries of the Americas amounted to some $382 billion.

The vast majority of people with diabetes suffer from type 2, which is closely linked to overweight and obesity as well as sedentary lifestyles. In the Americas, more than 60% of the population is overweight or obese, largely as a result of lifestyle changes related to development and globalization.

The new WHO report says the rise of diabetes can be slowed through a combination of fiscal policies and legislation aimed at changing the environment in which people make lifestyle decisions, along with greater public awareness of the need to address the top risk factors for the disease. The report urges measures to reduce consumption of unhealthy foods, including increased taxes on sugary drinks and front-of-package labeling that alerts consumers to excessive fat, sugar and salt in processed foods.

"Unless urgent action is taken, the world will not reverse this epidemic," said Alberto Barceló, PAHO regional advisor on diabetes. He noted that WHO member countries have pledged to curb the increase in both diabetes and obesity by 2025.

The new report emphasizes that people with diabetes can live long and healthy lives if their condition is diagnosed early and is well managed. In some countries of the Americas, however, as many as 40% of people who have diabetes do not know it, and 50-70% do not have their condition controlled.

Good management of diabetes is essential to prevent complications and premature death. "We must ensure that people with diabetes have access to the health care and medicines they need as well as to education about self-management and interventions that facilitate healthy living," said Barcelo.

World Health Day launch in Mexico City

An international forum on diabetes organized by PAHO and Mexico's Ministry of Health will be held in Mexico City on April 7-8 as part of the 2016 World Health Day campaign. The event, which will include the regional launch of WHO's first Global Report on Diabetes, can be followed virtually. Featured speakers will include Secretary of Health of Mexico Jose Narro Robles and PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne. Other participants will include PAHO Representative in Mexico Gerry Eijkemans and Chilean TV host and PAHO Champion of Health Mario Kreutzberger ('Don Francisco').