Managing diabetes without weapons

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Midsection of diabetic young woman injecting stomach at home

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Diabetes is one of the biggest health issues New Zealand is grappling with.

More than a quarter of a million people live with some form of the illness, and the number is rising rapidly.

But effective treatments which have been available for half a decade in Europe are still being held up here.

Today on The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to two medical professionals about the current state of diabetes in New Zealand; why the problem seems to be worsening; and whether there are simple steps and messages which could go some way to alleviating the issue.

Dr Collin Tukuitonga was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes about 15 years ago but, like many in his position, he wasn’t expecting it.

“I didn’t feel unwell, I wasn’t sick.

“One time I went to see a GP for something else – which is the usual story. I got a blood test, it came back and confirmed I had high blood sugar, essentially diabetes.

“In fact it’s very rare for people to experience any symptoms … it’s usually found as the result of a blood test for something else.”

Dr Tukuitonga is one of the 264,000 New Zealanders living with diabetes – and one of 36,000 Pacific people.

Diabetes is known to affect certain ethnic groups much worse than others: nearly 40 percent of people with diabetes are of Māori, Pasifika, or Indian origin.

Diabetes is an illness wherein the body’s ability to produce insulin, which regulates glucose – or blood sugar levels – is compromised.

It’s a leading contributor to heart disease – one of the biggest killers in New Zealand – as well as kidney failure, and causes hundreds of amputations each year.

While type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease often diagnosed in childhood, and requires lifelong insulin supplements, type 2 is more difficult to diagnose: the symptoms are subtle and nefarious, and people can live for many years without even knowing they have it.

Currently type 2 is treated through a combination of lifestyle and dietary improvements and medication designed to improve insulin production.

However, New Zealand’s treatment plans are considered by some medical experts, such as Dr Bryan Betty, the medical director at the College of GPs, to be far behind much of the developed world.

Medicines which have been available since 2014 in Europe are close to being introduced here, but due to the cost, Pharmac wishes to prioritise those most at risk of developing harmful complications.

The rolling out of these medications has been delayed as the drug-buying agency considers public feedback about who will be able to access the medicines.

Dr Betty says these will be crucial to New Zealand’s treatment of diabetes, and the sooner they’re greenlit, the better.

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