08 April 2016

[Blog Series] World Health Day – Diabetes and RMNCAH in Africa: H for Health

DSC 0121 650x435
Photo credit: The Wellbeing Foundation Africa

Africa is undoubtedly the crucible of this ticking time bomb. The number of people diagnosed with diabetes in Africa is predicted to double by 2035, yet the vast majority of the populace is either unaware of the threat, or refusing to heed it. Currently, more than two-thirds of those with diabetes in Africa do not know that they have it, meaning the continent has the highest proportion of undiagnosed cases of diabetes across the world.

The tragedy of this situation is that, with the right policy approach and a concomitant level of political will, it can be well managed, and a vast number  of cases prevented. We know how to tackle this issue, and how to protect the most vulnerable in society. As is so often the case with major health challenges, much of the defence against diabetes begins with education. We need major public-awareness campaigns, specifically targeting the most at-risk groups, informing them  of the  dangers and potential  warning signs, and encouraging them to get checked for the disease. We need greater support for women and young girls to inform them not only of the dangers, but of the practical steps they can take to both prevent and recognise early signs of the disease.

Poor health care infrastructure remains a huge  challenge, but we can overcome this by targeting resources at specific elements of the health care system. Mothers and their unborn babies are particularly at risk—indeed, gestational  diabetes, which if unchecked can so often lead to type 2 diabetes later in life, currently affects approximately 1 in 7 births globally. Data on the specific circumstances in Africa remains patchy, but it is a safe bet that this figure is significantly higher for pregnancies across African countries.

As such, quality care during pregnancy and childbirth, and crucially access to healthcare professionals and  skilled midwives, will have a disproportionate impact on reducing the threat posed by diabetes, as well as helping to put an end to the cycle of undiagnosed, untreated and consequently unavoidable transmission of diabetes, from generation to generation.

But above all, what I believe we need to tackle, and ultimately defeat, the scourge of diabetes is leadership. Leadership from our politicians. Leadership from the international community. And, leadership from civil society leaders and those that have the tools and power to affect a shift in behaviour and mindset among vulnerable citizens towards this threat.

The case for action is not just moral, although this alone should spur action. Diabetes and its complications, like so many other recent health crises, have the potential to bring about substantial economic loss for countries seeking  growth and to improve the living standards of their populations. While it remains unchecked, the rapid spread of diabetes has the potential to set Africa back by years, if not decades. Politicians, global leaders and communities must sit up, listen and come together to act, before it is too late and the diabetes epidemic takes hold. The populations of developing countries do not deserve another preventable health crisis while its leaders and the rest of the world watch on, until it is too late.

Toyin Saraki
Goodwill Ambassador, ICM
Founder-President, Wellbeing Foundation