Why diabetes is a growing threat to Hongkongers

April 21, 2016 11:27
Diabetes afflicts one in 10 people in Hong Kong. It's a lifestyle-related disease that can be prevented or managed. Photo: Internet

World Health Day 2016 took place just a few weeks ago, with diabetes as this year’s theme.

It is a subject that deserves wider publicity in Hong Kong because our city -- long known for its generally good health -- is under growing threat from this and other lifestyle-related diseases.

It is something that I take a particular interest in as chairperson of the Committee on Reduction of Sugar and Salt in Food.

Overconsumption of sugar and salt can lead obesity and high blood pressure. These in turn can lead to preventable problems like strokes, heart disease and diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes, which usually starts in childhood, is not lifestyle-related but Type 2, which mainly affects adults, is caused by things like excessive weight and too little exercise. Poor diet -- too many sugary drinks and food containing a lot of trans-fats -- is a major contributor. Stress is also a factor. The disease is especially associated with modern urban living.

According to Director of Health Dr. Constance Chan, who spoke at a press conference for World Health Day, one in 10 people in Hong Kong has diabetes.

Around half of them are not aware of it, although the disease could be doing gradual damage.

In 1990, the average age for patients being diagnosed was 57; today it is 50.

In over one in five cases, diabetes develops before the age of 40 and that number is expected to double by 2030.

Because diabetes can get worse over time, the younger you are when it starts, the greater your eventual risk of heart, kidney and other problems.

According to Dr. Chan, new cases of diabetes increased from 33,331 in 2009/10 to 34,864 in 2014/15.

The total number of outpatients being treated rose by 31.5 per cent in that time.

The causes are fairly clear.

Nearly four in every 10 of us aged 18-64 today are overweight or obese (according to the WHO classification of weight status by body mass index (BMI) for Asian adults).

Shockingly, 18.7 per cent of primary school students and 19.4 per cent of secondary school students were overweight or obese in 2014.

You only have to look around to see what is happening: a third of us drink sugary drinks every day, and 60 per cent of us exercise less than the WHO recommends.

And it’s not simply about being overweight. If you eat poorly and don’t exercise but stay slim, you are still at risk.

The government is taking action.

With other organizations, it is launching a publicity campaign to educate the Hong Kong community about preventing and reducing the impact of diabetes.

They want to get the word out that Hong Kong people should be eating more fresh vegetables and fruits and less sugary and fatty foods and also getting a reasonable amount of exercise.

You will find a lot more information in a booklet called Managing Diabetes Made Easy and other materials on the Center for Health Protection website (www.chp.gov.hk).

Meanwhile, I and my colleagues on the Committee on Reduction of Sugar and Salt in Food are examining ways to encourage everyone to eat safe levels of salt and sugar. And we are looking at how to reduce the high amounts now found in some foods.

Other parts of the world have already done much work on this, and we have an international panel of advisers to help us learn from others’ experience.

The committee includes members from the medical, academic, educational and food sectors. We will be making recommendations later this year.

This is a challenge for the whole community.

If we ignore lifestyle diseases, Hong Kong will have to pay growing medical bills and broader economic costs that go with poorer public health.

Most of all, many of us as individuals will suffer if we or our loved ones develop serious but largely preventable or manageable diseases.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress