The Eritrean Motto is “Eyes on Diabetes”
Changes in daily habits do not solely show positive outcomes. Indeed, a sedentary lifestyle, the growth of processed foods, and unhealthy eating habits combined with a lack of physical exercise are key factors in the increase of non-communicable and chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. The latter, diabetes, has become a global health concern and the number of people diagnosed with diabetes continues to increase each year. According to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), approximately 415 million people worldwide are living with diabetes.
Africa, in particular, has begun to show alarming figures in recent years. Specifically, the number of people living with diabetes jumped from 4 million in 1980 to 7.5 million diabetic adults aged 20 to 79 in 2000. In 2015, the number has rose to 14 million in Africa and, while the number of people diabetes sufferers will double by 2040, in Africa, the number is estimated to reach 34 million by then (IDF 2016). According to WHO estimates from 2000, Nigeria, South Africa, and Ethiopia have the highest prevalence of diabetes. This chronic disease known as Diabetes Mellitus is a chronic condition characterized by high blood sugars in which the body will no longer produce insulin or uses it ineffectively.
There are three types of diabetes. Type 1 is caused by the body’s immune system attacking and destroying cells producing insulin and it is becoming increasingly common on the African continent. Type 2 diabetes develops when the body does not produce enough insulin to maintain a normal blood glucose level or ineffectively uses insulin. The third type of diabetes, Gestational Diabetes, affects women during pregnancy (it can develop in about one out of 25 pregnancies). This chronic disease, often perceived as a disease related to changes in lifestyle and wealth, is also increasingly apparent within Africa since access to treatment and health facilities remain limited.
Currently, there is no cure for diabetes. However, prevention exists. About 70% of Type 2 diabetes can be avoided by adopting a healthy lifestyle. As well, sensitization programs, access to treatment and screenings are essential. In 2007, the UN passed Resolution 61/225 making the World Diabetes Day an official UN day. This day is commemorated worldwide, and involves cooperation and support from the IDF and WHO.
In Eritrea, November 14 annually commemorates World Diabetes Day, while the month of November is distinguished as World Diabetes Month. This year, Eritrea celebrated World Diabetes Day day nationwide. The official ceremony was held on Saturday morning, the 12th, and began with a march on Independence Avenue. School children were holding banners aloft and wearing hats with this year’s slogan: “Eyes on Diabetes”. During the morning hours, members of the Eritrean National Diabetes Association (ENDA) organized a ceremony at Cinema Roma where participants were invited to undergo free insulin screening. Posters and banners were posted throughout the city and at the hall of the cinema reminding people of the importance of prevention and effective treatment. Additionally, all regions and local hospitals also commemorated the day by organizing awareness raising seminars for local communities.
These initiatives are important for Eritrea since the country is not immune from challenges related to diabetes. There are an increasing number of people diagnosed with diabetes in the country and especially in urban areas. In fact, the number of people with diabetes continues to rise every year as Dr. Tesfai Solomon, Director General at the Ministry of Health, Central region branch, explained to the crowd. In 2007, about 2000 people were diagnosed with diabetes, a number that has grown to 7000 in the Central region alone and 74,200 cases registered nationally (in 2015). These trends follow the changes in lifestyle associated with urban settings, as well as a significant number of people coming from other regions for screenings.
With the figures set to continue to rise, the ENDA (established in 1996) remains committed to raising awareness and supporting those living with diabetes. Initially, the idea of an association came from a few individuals living with diabetes to create a forum and sensitize the population of this health issue as well as advocating for all people affected by diabetes. From humble beginnings, ENDA has grown to include more than 10,000 members. Becoming a member of the International Diabetes Federation in 2003, it works closely with the Ministry of Health, the WHO, pharmaceutical companies, and corporate sponsors.
During the official ceremony, participants had the chance to listen to different seminars on preventable habits that each citizen should adopt. Dr. Goitom Mebrahtu, chairperson of ENDA, stressed how diabetes is one of the most pressing health challenges worldwide, and he explained how it is important to do continual check-ups in one of the health facilities available nationwide.
Mr. Semere Ghebregiorgis, representing the WHO in Eritrea, also stressed that “a lot needs to be done in the African continent, in terms of legislation, promoting sport activities, regular screenings, as well as giving equitable access to treatment”. Unfortunately, in many parts of the continent, healthcare has received little attention or has been reserved for the wealthy. However, in contrast, Eritrea offers free and equitable access to healthcare for all citizens, while also promoting grassroots sport activities and clubs. Additionally, Eritrea is one of the few countries in the world that provides free insulin and treatment to all diabetics, as Mr. Mehari Woldu, on behalf of Ministry of Health added.
Such events allow the general public to understand the risks and prevention and treatments available in Eritrea. As well, media campaigns were organized throughout the week, while cultural shows, such as the Maager cultural troupe from NUEYS, focused on the importance of prevention and screenings.
Every year, World Diabetes Day has a specific focus; this year the theme was on diabetes and eyes. Dr. Kahsay Fessehatzion gave an extensive presentation on the impact of diabetes on eyes and symptoms of Diabetic Retinopathy (DR), a disease which can be treated if diagnosed early. In total, about 93 million people worldwide suffer from the disease. Furthermore, as Dr. Kahsay explained, the diabetic eye has a higher risk for complications which can cause blindness in 5% of all cases while 30% of diabetics suffered from DR in Eritrea. According to health professionals, diabetes sufferers should conduct regular screenings. To ensure a productive results and early detection, the Berhan Eye Hospital in Asmara welcomed diabetic patients to come for free screenings on Monday the 14th as part of the national campaign.
Through sensitization, prevention, and regular screening, diabetes can be overturned. Strong will from policy makers promoting a healthy society as well as responding to its needs in terms of facilities and treatment continue to be the motto of Eritrea’s path towards sustainable development. Because as one knows, only a healthy society can lead to prosperity.
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