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More than 300,000 people in the UAE have diabetes but do not know they have the condition.
Undiagnosed or left untreated, diabetes causes heart and kidney disease, leg amputation and blindness.
“It is a major public health issue,” said Dr Samer El Ali, medical director of the health care provider MSD Middle East. “Untreated, diabetes puts a lot of complications on the patient’s health.”
There are 745,940 diabetics in the UAE, according to figures published on Thursday by the International Diabetes Federation to mark World Diabetes Day. In 304,000 of those cases the condition has not been diagnosed, and 934,300 people have impaired glucose tolerance, a pre-diabetic state of hyperglycaemia, or elevated levels of blood sugar.
Type 2 diabetes, caused by a combination of lifestyle and genetic factors, accounts for about 90 per cent of cases worldwide. Many Type 2 cases are diagnosed years after the condition has taken grip. By that time other, and often avoidable, symptoms have developed.
“A lot of patients come at a very late stage,” Dr El Ali said. “Diabetes is definitely a condition which is easy to treat in its early stages.”
Not treating diabetes swiftly brings a heightened risk of blindness, kidney deterioration, diabetic foot and cardiovascular disease – the highest cause of death among diabetic patients.
Another problem, Dr El Ali said, was that even when patients have diabetes diagnosed, many do not realise the gravity of their condition and do not seek regular professional treatment.
“And there are other patients who feel they can refer to herbal medicine,” he said.
Dr Anita Gupta, clinical dietician at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said eating habits, particularly among children, were a major factor.
“They overeat at a young age and end up obese,” she said. “That is the biggest risk factor for diabetes.
“We should be teaching children at an early age about eating habits and the importance of healthy eating. The more carbohydrates you eat the more chance you have of getting diabetes. Most people here, they buy, eat and drink whatever they want but they need to be aware of the risks.”
The newly published figures, released in The Diabetes 2013 Atlas Updates, puts the UAE fifth regionally for prevalence of the disease, at 18.98 per cent of the population, behind Saudi Arabia (23.87 per cent), Kuwait (23.09 per cent), Qatar (22.87 per cent) and Bahrain (21.84 per cent). There are about 34.6 million diabetics in the Middle East and North Africa region and another 16.8 million who have the condition but are unaware.
Dr Hamed Farooqi, director of the Dubai Diabetes Centre, said a delay in diagnosis was extremely harmful.
“The whole issue of diabetes is the abnormalities it causes in blood sugar levels,” he said. “This has an effect on the blood vessels.
“People have problems with their eyes – diabetes is the top cause of preventable blindness. Deterioration to the kidneys can lead to people needing dialysis or kidney transplants.
“Feet become more numb because the blood flow is affected. This can lead to cuts, ulcers and even amputation.”
Dr Farooqi called for more awareness to help people spot the warning signs of diabetes.
“The first thing we need to address is raising awareness of diabetes and what symptoms to look out for: excessive thirst, excessive urination, blurry vision, unexplained weight loss and infections that keep returning.”
The risk of developing Type 2 diabetes increases sharply with unhealthy weight gain, and exercise and a healthy diet are important in reducing the risk.
“There are two things to do to prevent diabetes with one goal and that one goal is weight loss,” said Dr Farooqi.
“The size of the waistline is important to Type 2 diabetes. Get on a proper diet and start some physical activity. It does not have to be anything expensive or fancy – just simple exercise such as walking 30 minutes a day five times a week.”
By 2030, it is believed diabetes will affect 592 million worldwide.
Total healthcare expenditure on diabetes in the Mena region is estimated to reach $22 billion (Dh80billion) annually by 2030.