By Sharon Atieno
As the COVID-19 infections continue to rise, the World Health Organization (WHO) finds that 18.3% of COVID-19 deaths in the African region are among people with diabetes, one of the conditions found to increase the risk of severe illness and death among patients infected with the virus.
The analysis of 14 African countries, which provided information on COVID-19 and comorbidities, showed that the risk of complications or death from COVID-19 among people with diabetes increases with age, with people aged 60 years and above facing greater risks.
Diabetes is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and lower limb amputation, but with early diagnosis and treatment, many of the harmful effects of the disease can be delayed or even avoided.
The disease occurs either when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin [type 1 diabetes] or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces [type 2 diabetes]. The more common is type 2 diabetes.
Though the occurrence of type 2 diabetes has surged across the globe over the past three decades, in the African region, the increase has been six-fold, from 4 million cases in 1980 to 25 million in 2014.
With more than half of the 19 million people living with diabetes undiagnosed, the African region has the highest proportion of people unaware of their status.
“Far too many people are in the dark as to whether they have diabetes. People with this chronic condition suffer a double blow if they are also infected with COVID-19,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “We must turn this around by investing in early detection, prevention and treatment of diabetes.”
At the onset and the peak months of the COVID-19 pandemic, health services for diabetes were particularly disrupted. Only about a third of reporting countries in a WHO survey of 41 countries in sub-Saharan Africa indicated that services were fully functional.
“We must not lose sight of other health challenges as we combat COVID-19. The World Diabetes Day is a key moment to call attention to this chronic illness, which is increasingly threatening the lives of Africans,” Dr Moeti said.
In many African countries, access to basic equipment for diagnosis and monitoring of diabetes is a challenge, especially in public and remote health facilities.
There are also limited supplies of insulin and oral hypoglycaemic medicines for diabetes on the continent, while health workers are not sufficiently trained in diabetes diagnosis and care for patients.
The African region is also witnessing a rise in diabetes risk factors such as obesity. Increasingly sedentary lifestyle and consuming foods rich in sugar, fats and salt is heightening obesity, ranging from 2.5% of adults in Burundi to 26.9 % in Seychelles.
World Diabetes Day will be commemorated on 14 November with the theme being “the nurse and diabetes” because nurses play key roles in providing lifelong care for people with diabetes, including screening, regular check-ups, psychological support and information on self-management and healthy living.