June 27, 2024

The dangerous rise of diabetes in South Asia

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NovoLog is a man-made insulin used to control high blood sugar in adults and children with diabetes mellitus.

Picture by: Alan Levine | Flickr

The rate of diabetes is increasing drastically across the world, but particularly in developing countries such as Sri Lanka and India, according to the US government’s National Institutes of Health(NIH).

In Sri Lanka, around one in five peoplesuffer from diabetes, whereas in developed countries such as England the rate is much lower – one in 16.

The main types of diabetes are known as type 1 and type 2. Both diseases relate to how our body responds to a hormone called insulin. Insulin decreases blood sugar levels, by moving glucose (a sugar) into cells, where it is used for respiration, which gives us energy.

Type 1 diabetes is a life-long condition in which the cells that form insulin are attacked and destroyed by the immune system. In type 2 diabetes – the most common type – the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells do not respond to it correctly.

Type 2 diabetes is usually diagnosed in adults between the ages of 45–64, but now the age of diagnosis is dropping, with more and more children being diagnosed.

Both types can cause severe health consequences, including heart disease, kidney disease, nerve issues, and problems with the feet and eyesight – issues that are difficult to cure. This is why it’s important to treat the disease effectively.

This problem has puzzled the minds of many specialists and has made them wonder – how will diabetes, type 2 in particular, affect the human race in years to come?

Type 1 diabetes is somewhat influenced by genetics and there is also evidence that certain viruses could be a contributing factor in development.

Type 2 diabetes is typically caused by non-genetic lifestyle factors, including diet (eating too many refined sugars and processed foods) and lack of exercise. Obesity can also increase risk, due to excess body fat preventing insulin from working.

Read more:

How British colonialism increased diabetes in south Asians

However, factors such as obesity and diet may not be the only risk-factors in South Asia. It has been theorised that a history of colonialism and associated repeated famine has meant that South Asians’ genes have adapted to hold on to energy for as long as possible.

This comes in the form of sugars being held as body fat, which can be stored for longer and used in periods of starvation.

This adaptation was life-saving during British rule, where both money and food stocks such as rice were siphoned off to the UK. However, it now works against South Asians at a time when two in three packaged goods on shelves contain added sugar. The stored body fat is not needed – now it just increases risk of conditions such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

These risks can be controlled through meticulous and careful treatment. For type 1 diabetes, insulin is the most common; for type 2 diabetes, it is metformin.

Unfortunately, treatments are very expensive and as there are a large number of sufferers, a relatively high percentage of a country’s income could be spent on medications. Sri Lanka, for example, spends 4.07% of GDP on health expenditure.

If the rate of diabetes increases, so will the cost of treating it. Therefore, it is very important to stick to the right medication and follow the advice of specialists to prevent this.

According to Dr Muditha Weerakkody (an endocrinologist and diabetic specialist in Sri Lanka) some of the easiest precautions to follow are:

If such precautions are followed, specialists believe that the rate of diabetes could decrease by 15%.

Written by:


Lisindi Liyanage


Galle, Sri Lanka

Born in 2008, Lisindi lives in Galle, Sri Lanka and is interested in Science, reading (mostly about crime) and wildlife. In her free time, she enjoys singing with her family and friends, and dancing.

She speaks English and Sinhala and is currently learning Spanish.

Edited by:


Ananya Prasanna

Science editor

Reading, United Kingdom


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