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The EU must waste no time in developing a strategy to tackle diabetes

December 20, 2012 11:23 AM

Cancer and Alzheimer's have deservedly been the subject of EU concern in recent years. But when you look at the figures on the incidence of diabetes, the failure of the EU to come up with a specific strategy for tackling this disease is inexplicable.

Diabetes falls into the category of 'non-communicable diseases' or NCDs, ones which are non-infectious so you cannot catch them. They include asthma, heart disease and strokes as well as diabetes. In the rich world the incidence of these conditions represents a public health emergency already but developing countries are set to catch up. At a landmark summit held in September, UN member states pledged their commitment to address the global NCD crisis and MEPs passed a resolution urging effective EU action.

Diabetes is becoming an epidemic. Over 30 million people in the EU already suffer from it and this is set to rise to 50 million - one tenth of our population - by 2025. But for some reason this major disease has failed to get the attention of EU policymakers, and indeed of some national ones, despite the huge implications for healthcare costs as well as personal welfare. As we approach world diabetes day on 14 November, that needs to change

I think the reason for the lack of urgency on diabetes may stem from two misjudged perceptions. One is that people can get along living with diabetes. In fact it is the fourth leading cause of death in Europe, with life expectancy for many considerably curtailed. The other prejudicial attitude is that somehow diabetics have only themselves to blame.

The causes of diabetes are not fully understood and more research into prevention and indeed working towards a cure are needed. There are two forms: Type 1, when the body is unable to produce any insulin, appears generally in childhood or teenage years; Type 2, with impaired insulin production, usually develops later in life, although it is now appearing in young people. Genetic and environmental factors may play a role, and ethnicity too seems significant. For Type 2, poor diet and lack of exercise leading to overweight do indeed figure strongly.

One major problem is that many people are not diagnosed until they have had diabetes for many years, which can lead to very serious health complications including blindness, kidney failure, limb amputation and cardiovascular diseases. No wonder diabetes is already taking 10 per cent of European healthcare spending.

The EU needs a comprehensive strategy, alongside national plans, to improve research, prevention and care of diabetes. In October, I organised a meeting on this topic of the EU diabetes working group, which I co-chair along with Simon Busuttil, Christel Schaldemose and Marisa Matias, and which works in cooperation with diabetes NGOs. Measures could include more funding to research the causes, developing screening programmes and improving the monitoring and treatment of patients.

The 2012 Danish EU council presidency is expected to have diabetes as one of its priorities. While the European commission seems so far unwilling to contemplate a diabetes-specific strategy - saying it prefers a horizontal approach - we are hopeful that the sheer scale of the diabetes challenge and the views of the other institutions will change its mind. A start will be made when the issue is expected to be raised in the parliament's November plenary.

This article was published in the Parliament Magazine, December 2011