Diabetes is traditionally referred to in China as xiaoke, or as the “wasting and thirsting” disease.
It’s an apt description, because the word consists of the two main symptoms of the affliction: ‘xiao’ refers to the sharp weight loss that typically occurs at the onset of diabetes, while ‘ke’ refers to the thirstiness that diabetics can suffer.
There’s an equally extensive history in diagnosing the condition. A traditional test going back to the eighth century got Chinese patients to urinate on bricks. Patients were considered diabetic if ants came to collect the excess sugar in the urine, according to specialist website Decoded Science.
Tests for the disease have advanced since then, but so too has diabetes’ prevalence, as a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has confirmed. It concludes that the number of sufferers in China could be much higher than previously thought.
Researchers found that 11.6% of Chinese adults were diabetic (a figure calculated using a representative sample). This suggests that as many as 113.9 million people could be afflicted with the condition a greater share than the US, where the growing problem of obesity has left 11.3% of its population suffering from the disease, reports the New York Times.
It also means that one third of the world’s diabetics are Chinese, reports the newspaper.
But that only includes Chinese that already have the disease. Another shocking result of the study is that just over half of the population is prediabetic, a staggering 493.4 million people
Someone is prediabetic if they have raised levels of glucose in the blood, which puts them at a higher level of developing the full disease. If accurate, the finding suggests that China’s battle with diabetes could become an even greater (and costlier) issue in the years ahead.
Sufferers of diabetes are also at risk of contracting a number of even more serious problems such as heart disease and kidney failure.
The study was a bombshell because it increased previous estimates of diabetes sufferers made in 2007 by 22 million people, reports Bloomberg. And since the tests for the more recent study were conducted in 2010, the actual number today could be even higher.
“Diabetes in China has become a catastrophe,” Paul Zimmet, the honorary president of the International Diabetes Federation, told Bloomberg.
In 1980, only about 1% of the Chinese population was said to suffer from the condition. That number has risen with changes in lifestyle where people are eating more but leading more sedentary lives.
Some think that Asians could also be more susceptible to diabetes than other ethnic groups. One major difference is that diabetics in the US are typically overweight, which is often not the case among the Chinese, suggesting that there could be other factors at play such as genetics or the impact of a radical change in diet over the course of a lifetime.
“Poor nutrition in utero and in early life combined with over-nutrition in later life may contribute to the accelerated epidemic of diabetes in China,” wrote the research team responsible for the study, as reported in the South China Morning Post.
Widespread diabetes could become a serious economic issue too, as it is a chronic disease that can require constant treatment. In 2010, a total of Rmb173.4 billion ($28.3 billion) was spent in treating diabetes and related conditions, reports the SCMP. The financial burden looks set to increase since a large percentage of prediabetics will probably acquire the full-blown version of the disease.
The first step to tackling the diabetes crisis will be improving awareness, so that those with the disease can undergo treatment.
That itself will be a challenge. Yet another depressing statistic from the study was that only one in three Chinese diabetics are aware of their condition.
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