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On A Sugar High: Incidence Of Diabetes Grows in Mideast

Urbanization linked to disease increase, according to researchers.  

As many parts of the Middle East continue to see a boom in urbanization, an unintended consequence has followed suit: Diabetes.

The International Diabetes Federation reports that social and economic changes have coincided with increased rates of diabetes in adults throughout the region.

In 2011, 32.6 million adults aged 20-79 were diagnosed with diabetes in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the International Diabetes Federation, or 9.1 percent of the total population. The number rose to 38.7 million adults in 2017, or 9.6 percent, and is expected to more than double to 82 million by 2045.

Saudi Arabia has the highest rate of diabetes per adults in the region at 18.2 percent.

“In the last 20 to 30 years, obesity started to become a major problem in the Gulf region,” Dr. Abdulrazzaq Ali Al Madani, President of the Emirates Diabetes Society, told The Media Line. “The economic boom changed the lifestyle [of people in the Gulf]. People became more sedentary, eating more and gaining more weight…[so] it increased diabetes.”

Cities like Dubai in the UAE and Doha, Qatar are now thriving urban centers, which has brought both positive and negative impacts to the region’s healthcare community, Dr. Al Madani said.

While urbanization has led to more educated doctors and the creation of hospitals and clinics, it has also facilitated access to things such as fast food, which in turn can lead to higher rates of obesity.

Within Arab communities, the effects of diabetes are felt even harder, especially by women. The International Diabetes Federation reported both higher rates of diabetes and diabetes-related deaths for women in 2017.

Dr. Itamar Raz, Head of the Israeli National Council of Diabetes, told The Media Line at a recent conference he co-chaired in Tel Aviv that Arab women in Israel are twice as likely to be obese and have diabetes compared to the country’s general population due to cultural differences and economic conditions. They are also three times as likely to die from diabetes-related complications, he said, adding that these trends are similar across the Arab world.

The disease, which is often linked to obesity, has led medical professionals worldwide to not only research new and better treatments, but also focus on preventative measures.

“We need to understand that diabetes is a disease of high sugar, but it’s also a disease of high risk factor cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Raz elaborated. “It’s getting worse [in the Middle East] and we’re now fighting aggressively against it in Israel.”

While prevention of the disease remains a priority for many, the recent conference in Tel Aviv showed that management of diabetes and communication between patients and doctors is also growing in importance.

Dr. Raz said there is often a gap between patients and doctors due to infrequent visits, which can lead to the worsening of cases of diabetes.

In recent years, technology has been used to close this gap. Mobile apps such as Dario Smart Diabetes Management, created by the digital health company DarioHealth, enables a pocket-sized glucose meter to relay data to smartphones, which can then be analyzed by patients and doctors.

“The computer first can teach the patient anything that you don’t have the time to teach them,” Dr. Raz said. “[Technology is] making a tremendous difference in my ability to treat the patient, and [gives] a lot of confidence to the patient.”

Still, one of the biggest obstacles in the treatment of diabetes has to do with something outside of doctors’ control—patient motivation. Experts hope technology can help in this regard as well.

“Medicine is heading toward digital therapy in many aspects but I think that diabetes is one of the strongest fields going there,” Dr. Avivit Cahn, an endocrinologist at the Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel, told The Media Line. “Adherence is a major issue. Many people just don’t take their medication regularly, they don’t exercise, they don’t eat right so really there’s a lot of work on motivational tools.”

(Dina Berliner is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)