Last week’s announcement by the honourable Prime Minister on the marginal increases on some of the most consumed imported goods, in particular granulated sugar and its contributing factor to the country’s alarming diabetes rate, stirred up some considerable debate across all facets of society to say the least.
To provide much needed clarity on the subject, I interviewed the president of the Diabetic and Hypertensive Association, Mr. George Eugene, who cleared up several misconceptions related to sugar and diabetes.
What is the current rate of diabetes in Saint Lucia?
GE: According to the statistics, we are looking at 10% prevalence, not taking into consideration persons who may be diabetic and are unaware that they are. We also have a number of persons who we refer to as pre-diabetics, who have high blood sugar readings and may become diabetics.
How are we ranked in the Caribbean for the rate of diabetes per capita in Saint Lucia?
GE: Saint Lucia is ranked third in the listing for the Caribbean in terms of prevalence per capita. According to the World Diabetes Federation, Saint Lucia is ranked 7th in the NAC (North American and Caribbean region).
How do statistics in 2013 differ from those in 2012?
GE: The number of persons suffering with diabetes in Saint Lucia is about 12,000. But that is the figure that the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is giving us from the listing that they have. PAHO’s figures are not tabulated from what Saint Lucia gives but what the other islands in the Caribbean give. They do a comparison and they come out with a figure. So for example they would say, if Jamaica is such then Saint Lucia should be such. The figures we are looking at are for 2012. We have not got 2013 tabulated as yet. In 2006, when tests and screening were done in Saint Lucia on nearly 43,000 people, Dr. Gurgan who did the formulation of the tests, says that every four years we are going to double in diabetes prevalence. And that seems to be the trend because World Diabetes Federation tells us that by 2030 there will be over 500 million persons suffering with diabetes in the world.
Would you care to comment on the Prime Minister’s announcements in the House with regards to the effects of sugar on diabetes?
GE: Well, like I said in the interview on HTS, sugar is a factor, but sugar in itself does not cause diabetes. If your pancreas is not producing sufficient insulin to break down the sugars in your body there’s no point in adding more. So if you are already affected its not prudent to add more sugar. So obviously you are going to have to use less sugar in order to avoid spiking your sugar level too high. But if you are not suffering with diabetes the amount of sugar you take in is less of an issue, but you have to be careful. If you continue to take too much you will damage your pancreas, and therefore hinder its ability to break down the sugars in your body, and you will suffer in the long run.
Do you think that the Prime Minister’s comments were sufficient to create public awareness?
GE: His comments actually draw attention to the fact that we have a serious problem in the country when it comes to diabetes. The statement was that sugar causes diabetes; sugar in itself does not cause diabetes, but what I think the prime minister is saying is that we have a serious problem with diabetics in the country; a lot of people are suffering with the condition and they need to be careful with their sugar consumption. I think that’s basically what the intention was, to alert people to be careful how much sugar they use.
What are some of the main areas of concern for diabetics?
GE: It really is compliance. If you are a diabetic and you don’t comply with the guidelines that you are being taught and advice given, then you will suffer the consequences. There is a lot of non-compliance, persons are told that they need to exercise, eat well, drink less alcohol because the body breaks alcohol down into sugar, and they do not listen.We do what we feel is good for us.
How would you describe the level of assistance that the Diabetic and Hypertensive Association receive from the government?
GE: Because of the problem that we face with diabetes, the government made sure that diabetes was the first condition that was put on Universal Health Care (UHC), where patients got free medication. Bearing in mind that there are some other medications that because of their cost are not on the list, [patients] do get medication to help [them] to sustain. Now government has included hypertension as well. Persons who are diabetic and hypertensive were not able to get free medication for both conditions, but this is now possible.
Do you think that enough is being done to promote public awareness on diabetes?
GE: A lot has been done to educate the people at different forums, but they do not adhere to the advice given. There should be a lot more education; I don’t think we can over stress the value of educating people. We have to be able to create programs catchy enough to get persons to want to be disciplined when it comes to their health. Until we can get persons to show genuine concern then education is insufficient. I believe the media has to get more involved and play a bigger role in educating the population.
What are your suggestions for curtailing the problem of diabetes?
GE: Early prevention. Testing people more frequently. Diabetes is 80% hereditary, and those persons who know that they have relatives with diabetes need to get tested more frequently. Diabetes is a condition that one can delay the onset, and this is what you want to do. We are seeing now teenagers with diabetes where in the past we thought it was an older age complication. So we need to place the focus on early prevention.