Every year on April 7, the World Health Organization celebrates World Health Day, not just to mark the anniversary of its founding in 1948, but to draw worldwide attention to a priority global health concern. The theme for this year's World Health Day is Beat Diabetes, and the organisation wants to raise awareness about the rapid rise of the ailment, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
Soon after its founding, WHO held the first World Health Assembly where it was decided that World Health Day would be celebrated on 7 April. Since its inception, it has highlighted important global issues ranging from mental health and maternal health to food safety and road safety. This year, it is calling for governments, health care providers, advocates and families "to scale up prevention, strengthen care and enhance surveillance" to curb the global diabetes epidemic.
WHO estimates that about 422 million people worldwide live with diabetes – a figure that has almost quadrupled since 1980. An estimated 3.7 million deaths were directly attributed to diabetes in 2012, out of which 2.2 million deaths were caused due to high blood sugar.
The Geneva-headquartered body says it chose to focus on the diabetes epidemic this year because of its rapid increase and to highlight the fact that the condition is treatable and can be prevented. Simple lifestyle changes such as regular exercise, maintaining body weight and a healthy diet can prove effective to prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes. It is also treatable and can be controlled to prevent future complications through "increasing access to diagnosis, self-management education and affordable treatment".
Besides raising awareness, WHO will launch the first global report on diabetes "which will describe the burden and consequences of diabetes and advocate for stronger health systems to ensure improved surveillance, enhanced prevention, and more effective management of diabetes". In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, governments have set the ambitious goal to reduce premature mortality from non-communicable diseases, including diabetes, by one third by 2030.
The chronic, metabolic disease occurs mainly in two forms – type 1 and type 2 – with the latter accounting for more than 90% of all diabetics worldwide. The medical condition occurs either when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin – a vital hormone that controls blood sugar – or if the body cannot use the insulin it produces effectively. There is also gestational diabetes, a temporary condition that occurs in pregnancy, but does carry a long-term risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
If not kept in check, high blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, can cause serious health issues over time including blindness, strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure, impotence and infections that can lead to amputations.
"If we are to make any headway in halting the rise in diabetes, we need to rethink our daily lives: to eat healthily, be physically active, and avoid excessive weight gain," WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan said in a statement. "Even in the poorest settings, governments must ensure that people are able to make these healthy choices and that health systems are able to diagnose and treat people with diabetes."
The consequences of diabetes extend beyond just health implications. Diabetes and its complications also results in significant economic loss to the patient and their families to monitor, treat and control it. According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that the price of insulin almost tripled from $4.34 per millilitre in 2002 to $12.92 in 2013. Insulin use and dosage also increased over the study period.
"Around 100 years after the insulin hormone was discovered, the "Global report on diabetes" shows that essential diabetes medicines and technologies, including insulin, needed for treatment are generally available in only 1 in 3 of the world's poorest countries," said Dr Etienne Krug, Director of WHO's Department for the Management of NCDs, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention. "Access to insulin is a matter of life or death for many people with diabetes. Improving access to insulin and NCD medicines in general should be a priority."
The rise in diabetes also has a negative impact on national health systems and economies due to medical costs and loss of work and wages. In 2014, Mexico became the world's first country to impose a sugary soft drink tax. In March, Britain also followed suit with Chancellor George Osborne announcing a new tax on sugar-containing soft drinks slated to take effect in 2018.