MEXICO CITY – Three decades ago, very few would have imagined that diabetes would become an epidemiological emergency in Mexico, claiming 80,000 lives a year.
“Now, this is a worrying epidemic. In the last few years there has been an exponential increase (in the number of cases), and every year many people die in Mexico due to complications related to diabetes,” physician Valentin Sanchez told Efe.
Diabetes used to be rare in Mexico, affecting mainly people with a genetic predisposition to the ailment.
Mexico currently ranks ninth in the world in the number of patients with diabetes and could climb to seventh by 2025 if the trend continues.
An estimated 3.6 percent of Mexicans had Type 2 diabetes in 1993. By 2016, the figure was 9.4 percent, according to official figures.
The causes of diabetes include poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, genetic or socioeconomic factors and, above all, excess weight, said Dr. Hector Ochoa, coordinator of the Health Department at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur.
When Lucia – not her real name – was diagnosed with diabetes more than 15 years ago, the disease was hardly known in Tuxpanguillo, a village 20 km (12 mi) from Orizaba in Veracruz, which now leads all Mexican states in the percentage of people with diabetes.
The diagnosis came during a time when she was obese following a pregnancy.
“You don’t take care of yourself, because you never imagine that it can happen to you,” Lucia says.
Back then, she and her neighbors ate a diet based on beans, maize, chayote, amaranth and other locally grown foods. With the arrival of paved roads, Tuxpanguillo residents gained easy access to bottled soda and other highly processed foodstuffs.
Alejandro Calvillo, director of the organization El Poder del Consumidor (Consumer Power), said there is a clear link between rising rates of diabetes and obesity and dietary changes, especially the consumption of sugary drinks.
The worst aspect of the problem, according to Dr. Sanchez, is that due to a lack of regular checkups, many people with diabetes don’t even know they have the disease.
The last 30 years have witnessed a “brutal explosion” of the disease, he said, adding that since 2013, at least 500,000 Mexicans have died from complications of diabetes.
The problem is worsening, Ochoa said, given that access to health care is limited, as hospitals in some areas lack the necessary tools to diagnose the disease. And delays in diagnosis prevent timely intervention, leading to alarming complications.
In Mexico, diabetes is the leading cause of death overall and of deaths resulting from heart attack. It is also the leading cause of blindness, amputations, kidney failure and impotence.