Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

The plight of diabetes in the Middle East

This is a blog post from Hazem Zohny, Nature Middle East‘s assistant editor.

By the end of this year, diabetes will have killed 357,000 people in the Middle East in 2012 alone. For the sake of context, that’s over 280,000 more than the number of people killed each year by traffic accidents throughout the regions’ all too notorious roads, and over 100,000 more than those killed by the massively destructive 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia.

Yet this diabetes tsunami continues to strike more devastatingly each year, killing in the Middle East nearly 80,000 people more in 2012 compared to 2011. But perhaps most tragic of all is that, according to the latest figures, over half of the people in the region with this disease don’t even know they have it. They remain obliviously undiagnosed as the unchecked disease triggers eye, kidney, and coronary heart disease, and all too often results in limb amputations.

It’s a crisis that many governments in the region have responded to by – perhaps understandably – dumping money at, collectively spending about US$5.5 billion annually to combat the spreading disease. Symposiums have been held, screening campaigns undertaken (even in the midst of shopping malls in some countries in the Gulf), and awareness campaigns such as World Diabetes Day are arguably on the rise.

But perhaps more proactively, some countries in the region – and particularly in the Gulf, where the proportion of people with diabetes are the highest in the Middle East and the world – are focusing their resources on biomedical research to better understand and tackle the disease.

For instance, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah International Medical Research Center’s (KAIMRC) bio-bank has undertaken an ambitious project to collect massive samples of blood, saliva, urine and tissue from volunteer patients in order to conduct large-scale studies on the interaction of genes, the environment, and lifestyle in diseases like diabetes.

In the United Arab Emirates, where diabetes rates are at 20%, the government hopes to join Europe’s bio-banking network in order to collect and share genetic and medical information on its national population that can help it better understand the genetic and environmental forces behind diabetes in the Emirates.

Meanwhile, Qatar Foundation’s Diabetes Association is setting up diabetes walkathons, mobile diabetic clinics, and regularly hosts major events like the Regional International Diabetes Conference. The new Qatar National Research Strategy focuses primarily on research into health issues concerning Qatar and the region, with a special focus on diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The urbanized lifestyle which rapidly increased in the region has, however, increased the spread of diabetes exponentially. In Saudi Arabia, for example, this could lead to a 283% increase in diabetes by 2030. Ultimately, while the focus on science research is a noteworthy endeavour, given that these countries boast some of the world’s highest physical inactivity (as well as obesity) rates in the world, it remains clear that there is a need for radical lifestyle changes.

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