By João Manuel Valente Nabais - 9th November 2012
As the causes of diabetes are manifold, any sensible and responsible EU strategy to reverse the diabetes epidemic needs to address all the policy areas involved
João Manuel Valente Nabais
The rising tide of diabetes in Europe highlights the need for more prevention and better education, writes João Manuel Valente Nabais.
Diabetes is a growing epidemic with the number of people living with diabetes in Europe currently standing at more than 52.8 million. Europe is also home to the highest number of children with type one diabetes.
Over the last decade, weight problems and obesity have also increased at an alarming rate in most member states, with statistics showing more than half the EU population being overweight or obese. Currently in Europe, one in five children is overweight or obese. Obesity is a significant risk factor when it comes to developing diabetes and other chronic diseases.
In this context, promoting a healthy attitude towards food and physical activity needs to be at the top of the EU’s health agenda. Driving behavioural change in how people eat, drink and move is key for better self-management and self-care for children and adults living with diabetes. It is also a central component of any prevention strategies for diabetes and diabetes-related complications.
Adopting and maintaining a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle can be a real challenge, given the abundance of energy-rich foods and lifestyle pressures that reduce the opportunities for physical activity. As the causes of diabetes are manifold, any sensible and responsible EU strategy to reverse the diabetes epidemic needs to address all the policy areas involved, such as education, the marketing of unhealthy food and food reformulation, but also mobility and urban planning.
Cost-effective diabetes strategies that could save hundreds of thousands of lives do exist, but the political will is missing. Prevention remains largely underfunded and poorly acknowledged. The economic crisis only exacerbates these issues. There needs to be a shift among political leaders: diabetes education and prevention needs to be seen as an investment and as an important contributor to economic growth.
More and more member states, from Italy to Finland, are adopting stricter food taxation (the so-called fat and sugar taxes) in response to the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Together with measures to make healthier products (such as fruit and vegetables) more affordable and health information campaigns, food taxation can make a real difference in changing people’s attitudes towards food and healthy lifestyles. It can also generate additional income for public health, a sector that has been badly hit by the economic crisis. In the current context, increased action to tackle a largely preventable disease such as diabetes is particularly welcome, even more so when considering the social and economic costs of this condition.
Action at national level needs to be complemented by a strong EU framework, as it is clearly acknowledged in the European parliament resolution on addressing the EU diabetes epidemic, approved in March 2012 by a large majority. The EU has a crucial role to play in leading the way to innovative, comprehensive and cross-sectoral strategies for diabetes prevention, research and education. It is only through a collective response involving all relevant stakeholders at European, national, regional and local levels that we will be able to reverse the diabetes epidemic and protect the future of millions of EU citizens.
João Manuel Valente Nabais is president of the international diabetes federation European region