Why Aren’t We Riled Up About This Global Public Health Crisis?

A World Health Organization report paints a grim picture of a growing health menace.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 8, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Since the 1980s, its prevalence has steadily grown around the world, precipitating an international crisis in public health. With the right medical care, it can be managed and controlled. But despite the fact that, in many cases, it’s preventable, the disease nevertheless continues to frustrate efforts to slow—much less stop—its relentless spread.

No, I’m not talking about a communicable disease like HIV/AIDS. What we’re talking about here is diabetes.

If that buildup led to a sort of letdown (oh, diabetes—ho hum), that’s no doubt because the growing health threat lacks the headline-grabbing power of, say, the sort of outbreaks that trigger Hollywood-style images of a global pandemic—Ebola! Avian flu! Zika!

But consider this: The worldwide death toll from diabetes in 2012 was 1.5 million. That’s roughly the same number of people who die from AIDS-related illnesses. When you take into account deaths attributable to high blood glucose, a condition sometimes called “pre-diabetic,” the numbers soar even higher, to 3.7 million.

All in all, approximately 35 million people around the world are living with HIV/AIDS, while more than 10 times that—422 million people—have diabetes, a staggering 8.5 percent of the adult population.

These stats come by way of the World Health Organization, which released its Global Report on Diabetes this week. The 88-page overview is filled with data points and recommendations, all delivered in polite, consensus-built prose. And while its authors point out that the most prevalent form of diabetes—type 2—can be prevented through healthy diet and exercise, their professional restraint can feel a bit maddening. What you start to want is someone to come out and shout: “Wake up, world! Millions of people don’t have to be dying from this disease!”

Of course, it’s not the straitlaced folks at WHO, like any number of global public health organizations, whom we expect to issue a stirring rallying cry. But if not WHO—then who?

Something’s not working. Nearly 90 percent of WHO member states report having a national diabetes policy, plan, or strategy, and more than 70 percent say they have a plan that’s “operational,” meaning it has funding and is being implemented. Yet, the number of diabetes cases continues to rise, not only in calorie-laden wealthier nations like the United States—where a study released last year found nearly half the adult population is diabetic or pre-diabetic—but even faster in low- and middle-income nations.

Maybe it’s not more federal-level action plans we need, but a public that finally starts taking diabetes seriously.