“Beat Diabetes” – The Focus of World Health Day 2016

With non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – mainly diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases and cancer – claiming an estimated 8.5 million lives each year in the South-East Asia region, the World Health Organization (WHO) will observe World Health Day 2016 with a targeted campaign to “Beat Diabetes”.

According to the WHO, diabetes is largely preventable and treatable, but afflicts about 350 million people worldwide. The “Beat Diabetes” campaign, which kicks off on April 7 – World Health Day  aims to increase awareness about the rise in the disease and its staggering burden and consequences, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. It also aims to trigger a set of specific, effective and affordable actions to tackle diabetes. These will include steps to prevent diabetes, and diagnose, treat and care for people with the disease.

“Diabetes is not just a health issue,” notes the WHO in its campaign for World Health Day. “Diabetes and its complications bring about a substantial significant loss to people and their families, and to health systems and national economies through direct medical costs and loss of works and wages. Thus, prevention, detection and treatment of diabetes is also critical to development.”

The International Diabetes Federation (IDF), an umbrella organisation of over 230 national diabetes associations in 170 countries, which has been leading the global diabetes community since 1950, applauded the World Health Day’s (WHD) choice to focus on diabetes for the first time.

“WHD 2016 is a golden opportunity for individuals and organisations working for the benefit of people with diabetes and people at risk of diabetes, to highlight the importance of all types of diabetes and to continue our efforts for enhanced public awareness and action on behalf of health and other public authorities,” the IDF says in its statement.

South-East Asia is getting fatter, faster

The impact of this disease is more pronounced in South-East Asia, according to research currently being carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The EIU reports that the rising number of obese and overweight adults and young people in Asia is likely to put more individuals at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes rates are set to double in this region by 2030, based on data from EIU’s study, “The Current Landscape and State of Health in Relation to Obesity in South-East Asia”.

Professor Jeyakumar Henry, Director of the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore, explains that body composition, phenotype and the Asian diet are very different compared to those in other regions. Asian foods are mostly composed of carbohydrate-rich white rice, which contributes up to 70 per cent of total caloric needs.

“Particularly for Asia, the prevalence of diabetes is increasing fast and it’s affecting younger people. Asian diabetic patients contribute to more than 60 per cent of the diabetic population, and four of the top ten countries with the most cases of diabetes are in Asia (China, India, Indonesia and Japan),” says Professor Henry.

Multi-stakeholder approach needed

“The WHO’s focus on diabetes, and on NCDs in general, resonates clearly with the priorities of Food Industry Asia (FIA) as it puts health and nutrition at the top of its priorities,” says Mr Matt Kovac, Executive Director of FIA.

“The global NCD epidemic has triggered global debates and galvanised partnerships among governments, public health bodies, non-government organisations, think tanks and the food industry, as key stakeholders look to develop solutions to help tackle the complex nutrition and health challenges. As part of its mission, FIA is harnessing the power of partnership to launch a sustainable, multi-stakeholder regional effort to improve diets and stabilise the rates of obesity and NCDs in Asia,” he adds.

The food industry has an important role to play, too. Recognising that healthy eating is a key factor in the fight against diabetes, FIA’s members share common values on the responsible promotion of balanced diets and lifestyles. FIA members are continuously improving product offering to create products that offer healthier options with more whole grains and fibre, more calcium, vitamins and minerals, more low-fat dairy, more vegetables and fruit, reduced sodium, less fat, less sugar and fewer calories. This also includes developing more affordable nutrient-dense food products for specific consumer groups, such as diabetics.

FIA and its network of national industry associations are working constructively with governments in Asia on nutrition and health issues, such as diabetes, with the goal of promoting a joined up dialogue spanning all points of the supply chain and capturing the views of all businesses, including small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Leveraging public-private partnerships to tackle NCDs

In response to Asia’s growing obesity and NCD issues, the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN) was established to leverage public-private partnerships and bring together experts from across government, academia, industry and civil society, to initiate and sustain a regional, multi-stakeholder dialogue on the role of food innovation in tackling obesity and chronic disease.

From its humble beginnings in 2015, ARoFIIN has come a long way in galvanising efforts to pursue an integrated approach to solving some of the biggest health challenges in the region. ARoFIIN and Singapore’s Health Promotion Board (HPB) commissioned the EIU study to provide solid evidence on the economic impact of obesity and NCDs in the ASEAN region and, importantly, to identify which policy responses regulators, food industry and governments can make within the ASEAN context.

Unbalanced diets are a key factor in diabetes, together with other lifestyle, genetic and environmental factors; as such, it is imperative that we all aim to improve healthy eating, promote healthier lifestyles and encourage regular physical activity. Collectively, industry, government and civil society are empowering and educating consumers to make the right choices for themselves and their families.

The “Beat Diabetes” campaign can do more than increase people’s awareness and urge them to take steps toward better health. Moreover, it is a call for governments, policymakers and other stakeholders to undertake a whole-of-society approach to improving diets and stabilising rates of obesity and chronic diseases in Asia.

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