One in seven people on St Helena has been diagnosed with diabetes – an increase of more than ten per cent in just two years.
On 1 March 2013 there were 645 islanders being treated for the disease, which doubles the risk of early death.
In March 2011, the figure was “about 570”, according to a government report.
With a population of 4,247 people, the new figure gives the island one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world.
Treating the condition is putting massive pressure on St Helena’s health service, just as spending is being cut.
In the UK, the £9.8 billion annual cost of treating three million diabetics has prompted talk of a financial crisis for the National Health Service.
And the incidence of diabetes on St Helena is five times as high as Britain’s.
A global increase in cases has been blamed on poor diet, increasing obesity and lack of exercise, along with smoking – all acknowledged problems on St Helena.
The World Health Organisation says that half of people with diabetes die of cardiovascular disease – mainly heart disease and strokes. Another 10-20 per cent die of kidney failure, it says.
The disease can damage the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys and nerves. Two per cent of diabetics go blind after 15 years with the disease, and one in ten has severe loss of eyesight.
Other complications can lead to leg amputations.
All but 16 patients on St Helena have type 2 diabetes, which usually appears well into adulthood. More than half are over 65.
Many Saints are genetically prone to fall victim to the disease, but onset of type 2 diabetes can be delayed or prevented by living a healthier lifestyle.
That includes avoiding tobacco and excess sugar, eating fresh fruit, and taking at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day.
But fresh food is expensive on St Helena, and many people consume fizzy drinks from South Africa that are very high in sugar.
The island’s most popular dishes also add to the risk of diabetes – including rice-based “plo”.
Concerns have also been raised about a lack of adequate sports facilities on the island.
Nick Thorpe, owner of various shops across the island, is candid about Saints’ appetite for unhealthy drinks.
“I reckon we import a container of fizzy drinks every six weeks,” he said. “Stocks are low at present. However, we have enough Coke to float a small cruiser.”
He has produced an inventory showing 73,740 packets of cigarettes – mostly State Express 555 – and 18,696 cans of Coca Cola, along with more than 35,000 cans of other brands.
High import duties on unhealthy food and drink was removed by the government to simplify that taxation system.
A specialist nurse runs diabetic clinics across the island, and many people have been given help with nutrition.
Hypertension is also a serious issue on the island, with a current caseload of 1,269 patients. Of those, 94 per cent have been evaluated by health staff in the past year, with 86 per cent of them reaching a target for managing blood pressure.
The figures for hypertension and diabetes were requested by St Helena Online after the February 2013 visit of UK aid advisers. Their report said health workers were successfully performing annual checks on diabetics, but a target for patients with blood glucose levels under control was unlikely to be met.