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‘Urgent priority’: Dire diabetes price tag expected to blow out to $3.5 billion a year by 2040

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A damning Government report reveals the skyrocketing number of New Zealanders with type 2 diabetes is expected to cost our health system $3.5 billion a year by 2040.

That’s up from the $2.1 billion our health system currently spends annually on treating the chronic condition that can lead to blindness, amputation and a life hooked up to a dialysis machine.

Researchers of The Economic and Social Cost of Type 2 Diabetes report – launched in Parliament today – are warning urgent Government action is needed to halt or even reverse that steep curve.

“By changing from an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach to a fence at the top, we could be avoiding more than 600 amputations a year in people with type 2 diabetes,” Heather Verry, CEO of Diabetes New Zealand said.

They are calling for regular foot screening for every New Zealander with type 2 diabetes, community centres targeted at managing and preventing prediabetes lifestyles, better education of the condition through schools and throughout the community, and a national strategy rather than each District Health Board having their own.

Associate minister of health who is responsible for diabetes, Peeni Henare, said diabetes was an urgent priority for this country and the Government’s investment during Budget 2019 started to rectify this.

“I know from seeing this around me, that diabetes is a disease that places a huge burden on our people and our health system, and it is really affecting Māori and Pacific people,” Henare said.

Type 2 diabetes is a chronic condition that affects the way the body processes blood sugar (glucose) and resists insulin. It can cause increased thirst, frequent urination, hunger, fatigue and blurred vision.

Along with amputations and blindness, it can also lead to heart disease, kidney failure, stroke and cancer.

Currently, there are 228,000 New Zealanders (4.7 per cent of the population) living with type 2 diabetes. By 2040, it’s expected between 390,000 and 430,000 New Zealanders (6.6 to 7.4 per cent of the population) will be diagnosed with the condition.

“I’ve been looking after people with diabetes for 40 years. I knew the findings were going to be terrible but I didn’t think it was going to be anything like this,”Professor Jim Mann, of Otago University’s human nutrition department, told the Herald.

He said the main driver behind the steep rise was the amount of New Zealanders living unhealthy lifestyles.

“Yes, type 2 diabetes can be genetic but diet and exercise are major contributing factors and that’s proven in the dramatic growing rates of young people getting type 2 diabetes.

“A few decades ago I remember saying to my colleagues ‘you won’t believe this, I’ve seen a 30-year-old with type 2 diabetes. Now, it’s common to see teenage patients and sometimes even pre-teens,” he said.

Mann – who is also an adviser for the World Health Organisation (WHO) – said not only were more people getting type 2 diabetes but they were also getting diagnosed much younger.

The costs of type 2 diabetes included, but were not limited to, surgeries to amputate, inability for those with the disease to work, hospital admissions and medication.

He said the report came from concerns among health professionals that diabetes had slipped out of the Ministry of Health and District Health Board’s agenda in terms of taking action.

Inequities and health outcomes will worsen for Pacific, Asian and Māori populations if no action is taken now, Mann said.

The associate minister of health said the Government’s Living Well with Diabetes plan aimed to reduce the personal burden of disease for people with diabetes by providing integrated services along with the tools and support people need to manage their own health.

He hoped it would reduce the cost of diabetes on the public health system, and the broader societal impact in the longer term.

Healthy Active Learning is another initiative to promote and improve healthy eating and physical activity in schools, kura and early learning services across Aotearoa.

The report was commissioned by Diabetes New Zealand, the University of Otago’s Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre (EDOR), Healthier Lives – He Oranga Hauora National Science Challenge, and a private philanthropist, and was undertaken by PwC New Zealand.

Matire's story

Matire Ropiha, 49, saw the devastating impacts of type 2 diabetes through her family – some lost limbs, others went blind, and her mum relied on a bag until she died at age 63.

So, when she was diagnosed with the “horrible disease” in her early 30s, changing her diet was an easy fix.

“Within a week of walking one hour every day and switching to a plant-based diet I saw the benefits, I no longer needed my insulin,” Ropiha said.

“A friend of mine did say to me ‘don’t you think cutting out all that food is really dramatic instead of just taking insulin’.

“I said ‘what I think is dramatic is when a doctor saws your chest open, takes out your veins and replaces it with pig veins and sews you back up’. She was like ‘OMG that is dramatic’ and I was like ‘yeah so I think I’ll just stop eating chips’.”

But discovering how a healthy diet and exercise could potentially reverse the impacts of her type 2 diabetes came after years of “mixed messages” from health professionals.

“I remember one doctor saying to me, ‘don’t worry if you eat a muffin, just inject yourself with more insulin’, I had no idea bad diet was affecting my diabetes,” Ropiha said.

The Taranaki mum returned to New Zealand after years of living overseas.

“It was much easier to maintain a plant-based diet overseas, back in New Zealand I’m tempted by all the foods that caused my diabetes like pies and hot chips. I’ve recently had to remind myself of the importance of sticking to a healthy diet.”

She said her message to New Zealanders with type 2 diabetes was to “engage with your Hauora (health and well-being)”.

“It is so important.”

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