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Commentary: In the wake of COVID-19, diabetes is the next health crisis that must be stopped

If we want to curb the global health emergency of diabetes, we need to prevent, detect and treat it early especially among young people, says Liz Henderson of Merck Healthcare.

Commentary: In the wake of COVID-19, diabetes is the next health crisis that must be stopped
Up to half of those currently living with diabetes are unaware that they have the disease. (Photo: iStock/Fly View Productions)

SINGAPORE: More than one in 10 adults – half a billion people across the world – have diabetes.

These figures, which have tripled over the past two decades, are particularly alarming given the serious health problems that can develop from diabetes, including cardiovascular disease, nerve disease, blindness, kidney failure, oral complications and lower limb amputation. It is estimated that 6.7 million people died from diabetes-related causes in 2021 alone.

Even more shocking is the fact that up to half of those currently living with diabetes are unaware that they have the disease. This figure also applies to Southeast Asia, which expects to see an increase in people living with diabetes by 69 per cent to 152 million in 2045.

In Singapore, 34 per cent of young people aged 24 to 35 are expected to develop diabetes by the age of 65, and 35 per cent of people with pre-diabetes will progress to type 2 diabetes.

The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) states that diabetes has become "a pandemic of unprecedented magnitude spiralling out of control and one of the fastest growing health emergencies of the 21st century". If we want to curb the global health emergency, we need to prevent, detect and treat it early, especially among young people.


Diabetes is a serious chronic condition that occurs when the body is unable to produce enough insulin (type 1) or cannot effectively use the insulin it does produce (type 2). Type 2 diabetes accounts for most cases worldwide (90 per cent) but there is an abundance of evidence that shows it can be delayed or even prevented with the right intervention.

Although the full impact may not be known for many years, COVID-19 has undoubtedly added to the burden. During the first year of the pandemic, a European study found that 1 in 5 hospitalised COVID-19 patients with diabetes died within 28 days of admission.

In Asia Pacific, close to half of all countries surveyed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported partially or completely disrupted services for treatment for diabetes and diabetes-related complications.

Preliminary studies have also found links between COVID-19 and the increased incidence of youth diabetes, which makes it more important than ever to have interventions in place to curb its rise within the younger generation.

A survey of 8,000 adults across eight countries, commissioned by YouGov on behalf of Merck, also provided insight into how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people’s risk of developing diabetes through their lifestyle changes. The results were highly polarised; some nations had improved on risk factors during the pandemic, others had performed worse on them.

While lifestyle choices triggered by the pandemic were varied, a staggering four in five respondents (79 per cent) did not feel confident they would know where to access reliable medical information about their risk of diabetes, or how to care for the condition if needed.


Appropriate interventions can delay, or even prevent, the development of type 2 diabetes. The Government’s proposed Healthier SG plan takes an upstream approach in keeping people healthy by driving preventive care and early intervention.

The scheme will offer free health screenings to Singapore residents for chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes. While this would help people detect the condition and receive support sooner than later, we must also target medical resources and information at the younger generation, to facilitate better awareness and encourage healthier lifestyles to prevent the onset of diabetes.

Family doctors can play a huge role in this, as they are familiar with their patients’ health history and can advise them accordingly on preventive care. To that end, the Healthier SG programme will invite Singapore residents to enrol with a single general practitioner or polyclinic doctor.

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Diabetes care has evolved drastically over the past 100 years, improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. In 1922, two Irish scientists made a discovery – the synthesis of a medicine called metformin.

Today, metformin is the world’s most widely prescribed oral antidiabetic medicine for patients living with type 2 diabetes and is available in more than 100 countries around the world.

But in this new century, we must do more to rewrite sobering diabetes statistics. It is manifestly clear that more needs to be done to address this global crisis, particularly in parts of the world where prevalence is on the rise and health systems are under extreme pressure.

As Nov 14 marks World Diabetes Day, we can play our role in the war against diabetes by taking responsibility of our health. COVID-19 may have increased sedentary behaviour in young adults, but as pandemic measures have lightened, the time is now to adopt habits that reduce the risk of pre-diabetes, such as a well-balanced diet and regular exercise.

If you are concerned about being at risk of diabetes, you can contact your local healthcare professional for advice.

Meanwhile, medical companies must harness their expertise and knowledge to prevent, detect and treat diabetes earlier. If current trends continue, nearly 800 million people (12.2 per cent of the global population) will have diabetes by 2045. This is simply unsustainable.

Liz Henderson is the Senior Vice President of APAC at Merck Healthcare.

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Source: CNA/el