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The diabetes situation in South Africa: all the basics you need to know

“Could you explain the diabetes situation in South Africa?” is a question we get asked all the time.

Remember: Sweet Life is not made up of researchers, or academics, or medical professionals. But we are South Africa’s largest online diabetes community, and we do a lot of diabetes education research, and we co-founded the Diabetes Alliance. So we have a good handle on the diabetes situation in South Africa.

diabetes situation in south africa - cape town

Diabetes in South Africa

Let’s start with the stats. You can take a look at the prediabetes stats here, but essentially 1 in 2 people with Type 2 diabetes in South Africa is undiagnosed. This means that half the people walking around with Type 2 diabetes don’t know they have it.

In addition, 2 in 3 people have prediabetes (which means they’re at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes). Think about that for a moment: if you’re in a queue with a person in front of you and a person behind you, two of you are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes if you don’t make lifestyle changes. Here are the risk factors of Type 2 diabetes, if you’re curious: in a fun 1 minute video. And here’s how to reverse Type 2 diabetes, so you know what lifestyle changes you might need to make.

Most terrifying of all, though, is the fact that (according to Stats SA), diabetes is the number one killer of women in South Africa.

Diabetes is not a lethal condition, and yet it is the number one killer of women in South Africa. We need to change this.

Sweet Life Diabetes Community

Understanding the diabetes situation in South Africa

Why is diabetes killing so many people – women, in particular?

Well, let’s go back to that undiagnosed number. Type 2 diabetes is a manageable condition – here’s how to manage it. It’s even a reversible condition, if you catch it early enough. But if you don’t know you have it, your blood sugar will obviously be higher than normal, because you’re not doing anything to control it. So you’ll be developing long-term complications, without knowing about it. By the time you end up in hospital with those complications, it’s too late.

Uncontrolled Type 2 diabetes leads to amputation, blindness, kidney failure and heart disease – these are all avoidable if you are diagnosed early enough and look after yourself. But you can’t look after yourself if you don’t know you have diabetes.

Did you know?
The National Department of Health recommends every adult over 45 years old gets an annual diabetes screening.

A diabetes screening is a simple fingerstick blood test. You can get it at your local clinic or pharmacy, it takes less than 5 minutes and you’ll know your results immediately. Knowledge is power!

COVID-19 and the diabetes situation in South Africa

Of course, this is all made more urgent by the presence of COVID-19. Here’s what we know about COVID-19 and diabetes, but one of the things everyone agrees on is that diabetes is a major risk factor for the serious version of COVID. Particularly Type 2 diabetes that is uncontrolled.

If half of all people with Type 2 diabetes are undiagnosed, though, that means that at least half are walking around with uncontrolled diabetes. So we need to make diabetes screening a normal part of our lives – just like an annual HIV test is a normal part of our lives.

Let’s flatten the diabetes curve!

We can see this information as depressing, or we can see it as an opportunity. At the moment, there is a Type 2 diabetes tsunami heading for South Africa: it’s the next epidemic. But we can flatten the curve by catching people when they have the risk factors of Type 2 diabetes – rather than when they have complications.

Imagine that we were able to alert people to the possibility of diabetes before they develop it. And then offer them the tools to reverse or manage their condition, so that they can live normal, healthy, happy lives with diabetes. That’s the goal: that’s what Sweet Life is all about.

What to read next?

Type 2 diabetes risk factors: Spend 1 minute watching this video and you’ll know if you’re at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

What is normal blood sugar? Here are the numbers to aim for if you have diabetes – and what normal blood sugar looks like.

The latest prediabetes stats in South Africa: Here’s what we know about prediabetes in South Africa.

Photo by Tim Johnson on Unsplash

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  1. Penelope Monini Penelope Monini

    I’m diabetic but most people don’t know about diabetic. If maybe road shows can be made and people be tested because most of the clinics don’t test people for sugar

    • That is a great suggestion, Penelope! The clinics are dealing with so much that they only test people over 45 or who have some of the risk factors. Thanks for your idea!

  2. I do apologize if i am mistaken. But there seems to be little info on T1 Diabetes in this article. That Aside, its a really nice idea if we could get a medical plan that caters more towards Diabetics. I must have a higher plan due to it and that doesn’t even cover my 4 visits required by the Dr to do a proper evaluation of my condition. Diabetics tend to have feet and eye issues, a improved benefit for that would be amazing. Being Diabetic is difficult and a lot of the time, family and friends cant really support you and that tends to wear a person down. We are very limited to what we can an can not do. I wear safety boots 80% of the day and not one Dr has been able to point me to a Podiatrist that can show me where i can get Safety Boots that would be acceptable to wear at my place of work. In short people don’t know the disease nor how to handle people that do have it. That needs to change. Being diabetic doesn’t mean you ate a lot of sugar, it doesn’t mean you are fat. Diabetes comes in various forms and the generalization of that is what is causing issues.

    • Great points, PJ! I’ve said a few times that it would be helpful if Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes had different names because the conditions are actually very similar.
      And you’re right, there’s not a lot of information on Type 1 diabetes in this article, because it only affects 10% of people with diabetes (in SA and worldwide) so sadly doesn’t get that much attention 🙁

      Are you aware of your PMBs (Prescribed Minimum Benefits) and what should be covered by your medical aid? You should be getting visits to your doctor and a podiatrist as part of your care. Here’s an outline, in case you need it:

      But yes! We hear you and agree with you. Perhaps the next article needs to be specifically about Type 1s in South Africa.

What do you think?

Sweet Life is a registered NPO/PBO (220-984) with a single goal: to improve diabetes in South Africa. We are funded by sponsorships and donations from aligned companies and organisations who believe in our work. We only share information that we believe benefits our community. While some of this information is linked to specific brands, it is not an official endorsement of that brand. We believe in empowering people with diabetes to make the best decisions they can, to live a healthy, happy life with diabetes.