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April 13, 2016
Even for a president that is no stranger to causing debate with her public announcements, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s recent statements on diabetes were surprising, to say the least. The head of state used her speech on advancements in Argentine medical research to drop an unexpected bombshell. To the amazement of watching ministers and supporters the words fell: “Diabetes is a rich man’s disease”.
Amid the predictable fall-out amongst opposition, and anecdotes of impoverished family members who had seen their lives blighted by the illness, some generosity can be afforded in interpreting Kirchner’s clumsy words. The correlation between acquisitive power in nations and cases of diabetes is clear; by far the highest number of instances occur in the United States and Europe, while the rise of China as a world superpower has been accompanied by a similar elevation in the proportion of the population afflicted by either types one or two of the disease, thought to be a consequence of the shift in the new urban classes from a traditional diet to one high in sugar, salt and processed ingredients.
The real tragedy of this semantic mishap, moreover, is that outrage over the incident helped once more to put in the shadow an issue that is becoming ever more grave in Argentina and across Latin America.
In a population of just under 40 million, around 2 million suffer from diabetes, according to Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA) professor Dana Sobol. 90 per cent of sufferers have Type 2, linked to elevated levels of glucose in the bloodstream and the strain most closely linked with a poor lifestyle and diet. In Brazil, South America’s economic powerhouse, the numbers are even more extreme; 12 million sufferers were estimated at the end of 2012, almost 7% of the population. The figures leave the two nations roughly in the middle of the rankings for countries by diabetes rates, but there is a worrying trend towards ever higher levels as growth in South America continues at a faster rate than in the west.
With this threat, however, also comes opportunity. Kirchner’s unfortunate declarations occurred during a presentation designed to introduce new ways of combatting the disease. The President revealed to the press a potato-like tuber, indigenous to the north-west of the country, Bolivia and Perú, which contains a natural sweetness while boasting a far lower glucose content than most fruits. The Yacón is just one of thousands of species of the potato family native to the Andean region, and has been used in traditional kitchens of the zone for centuries to make jams and marmelades.
Utilising the produce of one of the world’s most biologically diverse continents, and sponsoring botanical research and production to harness such crops for medical purposes, present a novel approach to disease control that blends government support with the riches of nature.
Scientific advances are also being made in Brazil, where government aid already helps some 1.5 million citizens to receive free insulin and other essential treatments against the illness. In 2011, researchers from the University of São Paulo successfully harnessed stem cell treatment to combat the effects of Type 1 diabetes. During a five-year study, patients were treated with the controversial cells and of 23 subjects 20 were able to discontinue daily insulin injections on an indefinite basis.
The prevalence of diabetes in Argentina, Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America is a challenge for governments and health authorities, just as it is across the developed world. But refreshingly, it is one that those in power appear determined to face in a proactive and innovative fashion. On an everyday basis, vital medication is available free at the point of use to those in most need, subsidised by public health suppliers ensuring a wide coverage. And as we have seen, be it using traditional vegetation or sophisticated medical research, the support is there to alleviate the pain of sufferers, and attempt to make those painful daily insulin injections a thing of the past. This initiative deserves applause, and provides an example across the world on how to begin the battle against an illness that has become one of our gravest public health issues on a global basis.