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The War on Diabetes in Southeast Asia

10 Jan 2019

Southeast Asians make up about 20 per cent of the 450 million people living with diabetes globally, with many of them living in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Experts have blamed this on a prevalence of processed and unhealthy food, a lack of early intervention for patients and misinformation — for a long time, diabetes was thought to be a disease that afflicted people in wealthier countries.

But Singapore is leading the fight against diabetes in Southeast Asia, taking a proactive approach to prevention and early treatment.

“There aren’t many countries doing a good job, but Singapore is doing a good job,” said Professor Paul Zimmet, Department of Diabetes, Monash University, and honorary president of the International Diabetes Federation.

Type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed through early detection, healthy diet and exercise. But experts note the diet and exercise decisions people make are often constrained by their environment – proximity to parks, pricing of healthy food versus unhealthy food, and time off from work to cook and work out. Government agencies must direct resources appropriately towards raising awareness of the dangers of diabetes, equipping local clinics for early detection and promoting healthier eating and exercise.

“It’s not simply about lifestyle. If you’re looking at reducing the epidemic longer term, it’s also about genetics, education, access to outside space, maternal and child health. Aspects of modern life, such as sleeping patterns, can also play a role in determining health outcomes,” said Prof Zimmet.

Dean, Professor Teo Yik Ying, added that a higher incidence of chronic illnesses like diabetes among young people meant they would incur more medical costs over their lifetimes and probably not be able to work to their full potential.

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