World Diabetes Day 2018: Understanding The Condition

It’s a diagnosis that can be very overwhelming – hearing that you have diabetes. Afterward, you may have mixed emotions, perhaps feeling stressed and unsure about how this will affect your life, while you may wonder what you could have done differently or how you could have prevented it. And to be sure, a condition like diabetes does require an entirely new approach to aspects such as lifestyle, diet and exercise, and it’s tough to manage for the whole family.

For this reason, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) decided that the theme for World Diabetes Day 2018 and 2019 should be ‘The Family and Diabetes’.  The focus is on raising awareness of the impact that diabetes has on the family and support network of those affected, and to promote the role of the family in the management, care, prevention and education of diabetes.

“The most important message we can give is that if you are living with either type I or type II diabetes – it’s perfectly possible to lead a healthy, fulfilling and active life with the right healthcare and family support, medication and personal attitude,”explains Dr Aneesa Sheik, Medical Director at Lilly South Africa.

Lilly educators will be available at various health facilities throughout the month of November helping people living with diabetes and their families understand the condition better.

As is the case in many countries around the world, the incidence of diabetes across Africa and in South Africa is increasing. Around 1.8 million people currently have it in South Africa, with this number expected to top around 2.7 million by 2045, according to the IDF. In addition, more than two million South Africans may have impaired glucose tolerance.

“This increase is in line with trends developing around the world,” says Dr Nicola Lister, Chief Scientific Officer & Medical Director, Novartis Southern Africa. “According to the World Health Organization, the number of people with diabetes rose from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014 – representing an increase from 4.7% of adults to 8.5% of adults.”

What’s the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes?

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1. If you have Type 1 diabetes, your body is unable to produce sufficient insulin of its own in order to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.  It usually begins in childhood or adolescence and is caused by a faulty autoimmune response that causes the body to destroy the pancreatic cells that produce insulin, which in turn leads to an insulin deficiency. People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin as it is vital to staying healthy and achieving the most consistently normal sugar levels, and quality of life.  There’s no cure for type 1 diabetes although researchers are working on preventing the diseas,e as well as the further destructive progression of the disease in people who are newly diagnosed.

2. Type 2 diabetes is far more common and according to the IDF, there were 1.28 million diagnosed cases of diabetes in South Africa in 2017, with a prevalence of 5,4% in the adult population.  In the case of type 2 diabetes, insulin is produced, but the body’s cells do not respond to it correctly. Instead, the body becomes resistant to insulin. It is most often, but not always, associated with obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity, advancing age, family history of diabetes, ethnicity and high blood glucose during pregnancy. It can go undiagnosed for years. Due to the progressive nature of the disease, most type 2 cases will eventually need insulin to be added to their treatment. However, many cases of type 2 diabetes can beprevented by making simple changes in our everyday lives and knowing the risks.

Understand the symptoms

Sometimes people overlook the warning signs of this condition because they do not experience symptoms, or the symptoms seem harmless.  It is important to talk with a health care provider if you have noticed:

  • unusual weight loss
  • frequent urination
  • tingling or numbness in your hands or feet
  • a persistent feeling of hunger or thirst
  • drowsiness, nausea or blurred vision
  • Slow healing wounds
  • Frequent fungal infections

Poor management of diabetes today has significant health repercussions for later on in life such as kidney failure, heart failure, blindness and nerve damage. The damage to the nerves may ultimately result in a loss of limbs.  How well you manage your condition today, will influence the quality of life you can expect to live later in life.

Insulin treatment is not the enemy – poor sugar control is

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Many patients are overwhelmed by the prospect of having to go onto insulin treatment. It is important to know that it is not a failure if you need insulin treatment as diabetes is a progressive disease, so in most cases all people living with diabetes will eventually need insulin. Good control of blood sugar levels is the ultimate goal, and effective insulin treatment will help prevent other serious issues like heart disease, stroke, nerve damage, organ damage, eye problems or in extreme cases, premature death.

Insulin is a hormone that’s made by the pancreas and its purpose is to help the body move glucose into cells for energy.  When your pancreas can’t produce enough insulin or fails to function properly, blood sugar (glucose) levels can rise — leading to diabetes.  If you are diagnosed with diabetes, you may need insulin treatment to help control your blood sugar level.⁵

Know your myths and facts:

  • Being on insulin will not disrupt your daily routine.
  • Insulin does not cause complications such as blindness. Along with other medications it helps to reduce complications by controlling your blood sugar level.
  • Starting insulin does not mean you are failing to take care of your diabetes.  For many people with type 2 diabetes, the body gradually produces less and less of its own insulin.  Eventually, oral medications may not be enough to keep blood sugar levels normal.  Using insulin to keep a healthy level is the responsible thing to do for your own health.

“The best approach is to be methodical in your planning, and to work out a daily programme that keeps you on track and becomes part of your routine.  Your healthcare provider or diabetes educator is also a very important source of information and experience, so don’t be afraid to engage with them about your concerns, no matter how minor you may think they are,” says Dr Sheik.  “The fact is that with proper management, you can overcome the challenges that turn your journey with diabetes into a success story.  Know the value of building a support system around you because diabetes requires healthcare providers, daily attention and commitment – and often involves your whole family.

Track your symptoms

When managing long-term health conditions, you may find it helpful to keep track of any symptoms you experience such as pain, fatigue, insomnia or nausea. What makes them worse? What makes them better? How do medications, foods, activities, people, and stress affect you?  You can also keep track of other readings that affect your symptoms, like blood pressure or blood sugar readings. Bring all the information recorded (blood pressure, blood sugar, pain, fatigue, etc) to appointments and share them with your healthcare provider as well as with your family. Consider asking your family for their thoughts about the information that you have recorded and what they have noticed about your symptoms.

Take care

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Above all be healthy, active and look after your heart.  It doesn’t have to be a complicated routine. Even a small increase in daily physical activity can make a big difference. While some risk factors for diabetes such as age, ethnicity and family history can’t be changed, many other risk factors such as managing your weight, eating healthy foods in the right quantities and exercising regularly can be managed.

About World Diabetes Day (WDD)

WDD is celebrated annually on 14 November. WDD was created in 1991 by IDF and the World Health Organisation in response to growing concerns about the escalating health threat posed by diabetes. For more information on World Diabetes Day, visit