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Diabetes epidemic could cost $1 billion, experts say

Published: 5:50AM Monday March 04, 2013 Source: Fairfax

  • Diabetes blood-sugar test (Source: ONE News)
    Diabetes blood-sugar test - Source: ONE News

The "silent and smouldering" diabetes epidemic will claim tens of thousands of Kiwi lives and cripple New Zealand's health sector within a decade unless urgent action is taken, Christchurch experts fear.

Desperate calls from the city's diabetes specialists come days after grim new research by the University of Otago found one in five Kiwi adults are set to develop type two diabetes.

Almost 20,000 people in Canterbury alone suffer from the disease, and more than 200,000 nationwide.

Diabetes is internationally regarded as the most rapidly growing chronic disease of our time and health statistics show the number of Kiwis with diabetes has almost doubled in the past 10 years.

If the disease is left to manifest, it has been estimated that by 2021 nearly half a million New Zealanders will be type two diabetics, costing the country more than $1 billion a year.

Christchurch diabetes physician Dr Helen Lunt described the epidemic as a "slow-burning, smouldering fire".

"If we do nothing, 10 years down the track we will end up with a lot of people needing very expensive treatment," she said.

Untreated diabetes sparks an array of serious health conditions such as blindness, kidney disease, heart disease and strokes.

It is more prevalent within the elderly and Pacific Island and Maori communities and as the population ages and grows in ethnicity, so too will the disease, she said.

Lunt believed the epidemic would continue to peak for at least another 20 years.

Local and central Government, the health sector and the public all needed to be involved in trying to curb the epidemic.

"This is too big for the Government to tackle on their own."

Type two diabetes is closely associated with obesity and Lunt said easy steps could be taken, such as exercise and healthy eating, to hamper the progression of pre-diabetes.

The Christchurch rebuild could also provide opportunities for a healthier city to help restrict the epidemic, she said.

Diabetes Christchurch manager Lynne Taylor labelled the epidemic as "scary".

She said more people died of diabetes than any other condition in New Zealand, but because the disease was not listed as a person's direct cause of death, she had no statistics to prove it.

"People don't treat diabetes as serious as cancer unfortunately. We don't count how many people it's killing because I don't think the Ministry of Health want to know," she said.

Diabetes New Zealand president Chris Baty said the latest figures, from 2008, showed the cost of type two diabetes was $600 million per year.

By 2021, she said the health costs were predicted to balloon to more than $1 billion a year.

"This has the potential to completely cripple the health sector."

Diabetes is currently a "priority" for the Ministry of Health.

'More heart and diabetes checks' is one of the Government's six national health targets and it hopes 90% of those most at risk of developing the illness will be checked by 2014.

Disease a big concern

"Alarming" new research has found nearly one in five Kiwi adults are set to develop type-2 diabetes.

A University of Otago study last week unveiled grim statistics showing the number of New Zealanders at risk of developing diabetes is much higher than previously realised.

Researchers analysed blood-test results from more than 3300 Kiwis over the age of 15 and found 7% had diabetes and almost 20% showed early signs of developing the disease, a condition known as pre-diabetes.

Researcher Professor Jim Mann told Radio New Zealand the numbers came as a shock.

"Never did I imagine, nor did any of my colleagues imagine, that there were as many as we found."

Fellow researcher Dr Kristen Coppell said the results, lumped on top of an already high national diabetes rate, should be of "major concern to policymakers and health funders".

The blood samples came from the 2008-09 NZ Adult Nutrition Survey, conducted by the University of Otago on behalf of the Ministry of Health.

"We found an alarmingly high prevalence of a glucose metabolism disorder [diabetes or pre-diabetes] in working age groups," Coppell said.

Results showed diabetes was more frequent in men than in women and was higher among those suffering from obesity.

Fifteen per cent of Pacific Island people were affected and 10 per cent of Maori.

Study findings

Researchers analysed blood test results from more than 3300 people over the age of 15 and found 7 per cent had diabetes and almost 20 per cent had a glucose metabolism disorder that typically leads to type two diabetes.

The pre-diabetes disorder affects:

Almost 20 per cent of those aged 35-44 years

More than 25 per cent of those within the 45 to 54 age bracket

Almost half of those aged 55 to 64

Dr Kirsten Coppell said overseas predictions had found that by 2050 half the population would suffer from diabetes. Lead researcher Coppell said the figures should be of "major concern to policy makers and health funders".

As serious as cancer

Noel Davies believes diabetes should be considered as being as serious as cancer.

The 71-year-old Christchurch retiree has lived with type two diabetes for almost 30 years.

"It's horrible to think there's that many people out there who have it but don't even know it yet," he said.

"People don't think diabetes is as bad as cancer. They are foolish because complications of diabetes are killing an awful lot of people."

Davies was 45 when he was diagnosed and said he initially did not believe it was true.

"I wasn't overweight by much and I ate a normal diet, only getting takeaways about once a year," he said.

Davies has to take medication, take daily blood test and is not allowed to over-indulge in some foods.

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