WASHINGTON, United States (CMC) — The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is urging better control of diabetes to prevent related complications, as well as potentially life-threatening complications associated with coronavirus (COVID-19) infections in the Americas, including the Caribbean.

PAHO also calls for continued access to primary health care services and treatment for people living with diabetes amid the new coronavirus.

“We are doubly concerned about the risk that diabetes may pose to those living with the disease in general and during the pandemic in particular,” said PAHO Director Dr Carissa F Etienne.

 “People with diabetes, who do not have access to health services and medications that allow adequate control, are at greater risk of developing complications, such as visual impairment, kidney disease and lower extremity amputations, but are now also at greater risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract COVID-19,” she said.

In the Americas, PAHO said more than 60 million people are living with diabetes, primarily type 2, warning that, if no action is taken, it is estimated that there will be more than 100 million adults with the disease by 2040.

In addition, each year, PAHO said more than 340,000 people in the region die from diabetes-related complications.

PAHO said COVID-19 has already infected more than 21 million people in the region and that cases continue to rise. It said the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the daily routines of millions of people in the region and has made the disease more difficult to manage.

The UN agency said fewer people have attended health care facilities for follow up visits due to stay-at-home measures, fear of infection by the new coronavirus and disruptions in health care services.

PAHO said a recent survey, which it conducted in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), documented that more than half of the countries in the Americas reported that diabetes and diabetic complications management services were disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic, with limited access to essential medicines and technologies.

“Many people may not be receiving their diabetes medications or may not be accessing the care they need to manage their disease, which is very worrisome, given that those living with diabetes are at greater risk of developing severe forms of COVID-19,” said Anselm Hennis, director of PAHO’s Department of Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health.

PAHO urged Caribbean and other countries to ensure that diabetes care remains fully available to patients during the pandemic.

“This may mean offering care outside traditional settings, using digital health solutions, disseminating information and bringing care closer to the population through community health workers,” it said, adding “insulin must also remain accessible and affordable to those who need it.”

The regional health organisation also called on health professionals – including nurses, who are recognised this year by the World Diabetes Day campaign for their critical support of people with diabetes – to ensure that people with diabetes understand their risk and have access to quality health services, information and tools to manage their disease.

Additionally, PAHO called on those living with diabetes to control their disease by staying active, eating healthy and monitoring their condition, particularly during the pandemic.

“While many may be afraid to visit a clinic, now is not the time to skip diabetes monitoring visits,” warned Dr. Etienne, adding “people can still get the care they need and their prescriptions, but they must remember to practice physical distancing, wash their hands often and wear masks.”

PAHO said overweight and obesity, which affect more than 60 per cent of adults in the region, are strongly linked to diabetes, a chronic progressive disease characterised by elevated blood glucose levels.

It said Type 2 diabetes – which accounts for the majority of global cases and is largely due to excessive body weight, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity – is on the rise worldwide.

Since 1980, PAHO said the number of people with Type 2 diabetes in the region has tripled.

Diabetes complications can be prevented through improved treatment and quality of care, said PAHO, adding that diabetes can be prevented through health and fiscal policies, legislation, environmental changes, and public awareness to prevent risk factors, including obesity, unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyles.

PAHO said examples of these interventions include taxes on sugary drinks; bans on the advertising of ultra-processed foods for children; front-of-package food labelling to advise consumers of high salt; sugar and fat content; and promotion of safe and accessible recreational spaces to encourage active living.

“A healthy diet and 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day can reduce the likelihood of children and adolescents becoming overweight,” PAHO said.

World Diabetes Day will be observed on Saturday under the theme “The Nurse and Diabetes”.

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