BEIRUT: Almost 1 in 6 Lebanese individuals suffer from diabetes, a result of poor diet, lack of exercise and rising obesity, according to new research.
Nearly a quarter of a million Lebanese remain undiagnosed, the latest data shows.
“Our region is in the red zone,” said Mohammad Sandid, the manager of the government’s National Diabetes Program. “Before, diabetes was the disease of gluttony and the rich, since modern food delights were only within their reach.”
He added: “Now all foods are available and in the farthest village in Lebanon you will have a hamburger shop and soft drinks”
The prevalence of diabetes in the Lebanese population could reach up to 1 in 5 by 2035, according to the International Diabetes Federation’s Diabetes Atlas.
In addition, 240,000 individuals likely have diabetes and are not diagnosed, the data showed.
That gives Lebanon the 22nd highest rate of diabetes in the world, ahead of many Western countries, ranking it seventh in the Middle East and North Africa region.
“Governments in the MENA region need to take the condition seriously,” said Azeem Majeed, head of the Department of Primary Care & Public Health at Imperial College London.
Majeed co-authored a paper on the latest diabetes figures for the Middle East and North Africa for the database, which was published online earlier this month.
The most common form of diabetes in Lebanon and the region is Type 2, which is linked to what Majeed called “modern lifestyles” – obesity, physical inactivity, and a diet high in refined carbohydrates. More than 95 percent of diabetes cases in the region fall under this category.
The prevalence of diabetes is lower in Lebanon than the Gulf states, but much higher than the West. In Saudi Arabia, nearly 1 in 4 have diabetes. The number in the United Arab Emirates is about 1 in 5.
Majeed said that some ethnic groups, including the Lebanese, were also more prone to developing diabetes if the risk factors of poor diet and lifestyle were present, making it more essential for people at risk here to develop healthy habits.
Diabetes can cause many health complications, including heart disease, kidney failure, strokes, blindness and the blocking of arteries that can cause the amputation of limbs.
Diabetes was responsible for 59 percent of limb amputations in Lebanon in 2007, while some 6,600 deaths were linked to the condition in 2013. Such a disorder can prove costly for the state.
“Diabetes is an expensive disease and, if not managed well, it can lead to long-term complications,” said Riyadh Alshamsan, assistant professor at the College of Public Health at King Saud bin Abdulaziz University, who co-authored the paper.
The role of governments is to put in public health programs to prevent diabetes and diagnose it early in patients, Majeed said, otherwise the strain on health care systems in Lebanon and the region could become unbearable.
The researchers said that the latest data they obtained showed that 30 percent of the adult population in the country was obese, with the odds of being obese two times higher today than in the 1990s. In a recent survey, half the participants in Lebanon reported low or no physical activity.
Sandid, who is also president of the Lebanese Diabetes Society, said there was a dearth of accurate data on diabetes in Lebanon and urged those who worked on the Diabetes Atlas to cooperate closely with the government.
He said the government was preparing for a project in cooperation with over 50 municipalities to accurately map diabetes in Lebanon.
He also said that the rapid lifestyle transformation from rural to urban living in Lebanon, the spread of fast food and lack of physical activity all contributed to the high prevalence of the condition among the Lebanese.
Diabetes risk used to be largely linked to lifestyles that were more common in affluent societies. But even though Lebanon is considered a middle-income country, less well off than the Gulf states, the risk factors for diabetes are on the rise.
The disease now affects people from all walks of life, Sandid said.
He wants Parliament to enact laws that support diabetes patients, including legislation that would prevent insurance firms from denying them coverage, which he said is a common problem here.
Government policies should also promote diabetes prevention by working to reduce obesity, he said.
Suad, a patient who was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when she was 13 and is now in her 30s, said diabetes patients should also learn how to live with the disease.
“The psychological pressure of daily routines and life all affect you,” said Suad, not her real name, adding that she had to take four injections a day when she was first diagnosed in order to maintain proper insulin levels.
She said that patients ought to do regular checkups and take their medications on time, which would allow them to live normal lives by adapting to their condition.
She said her advice to diabetes patients was to follow their doctor’s instructions closely and eat healthy.
She also pointed out that the family played a major role in helping diabetes patients live a normal life.