The Canadian Diabetes Association is hoping World Health Day will shine a light on a disease they say has reached “epidemic proportions.”
Not only does Atlantic Canada have among the highest rates of diabetes in the country, but statistics show aboriginal communities are disproportionately affected.
“When we start looking at First Nations peoples, then those numbers are really getting into a category that’s quite staggering,” said Lisa Matte, the association’s Maritimes regional director.
In March, a new provincial health registry called First Nations Client Linkage Registry was launched in Nova Scotia. It found rates of diabetes among Mi’kmaq people were two times higher than the general population.
For those aged 29 to 39, the prevalence is five times higher.
Charlotte Bernard, a wholistic family worker at the Mi’kmaq Child Development Centre, knows the struggles of diabetes firsthand.
Diabetes has always been in the back of her mind because she has a family history and her doctor told her she was borderline for the disease. But it wasn’t until her Type 2 diabetes symptoms worsened that she did something about it.
“It was affecting me. I was tired, I was thirsty, my eyes would blur so I realized that I needed to do something with my life,” Bernard said.
She and her co-workers started a weight loss challenge by eating healthier and keeping each other accountable. They also invited the Canadian Diabetes Association to visit their workplace and give a presentation on healthy living.
In five weeks, Bernard lost 12 lbs and gained a better quality of life. It’s a feat she’s proud to share.
“We do know that natives are at higher risk for diabetes but people just generally don’t talk about it so I think we need to get the word out and start talking about,” she said.
As a physician who works at the Sipekne’katik Health Centre in Indian Brook, Dr. Aruna Dhara has noticed the alarming rates of diabetes in the community. In her practice, she has also seen increasingly younger patients coming in with signs of the disease.
“First Nations people develop diabetes sooner than other people in the population,” she said.
“So it’s not your 85-year-old grandmother, it’s your 35-year-old neighbour and that’s a significant issue because that means people are developing the complications of diabetes sooner than they otherwise would.”
The high rates of diabetes in First Nations communities is often attributed to genetics and social factors — ranging from income to access to healthy and affordable food.
“If you go see a diabetes educator, and they say, ‘you need to eat more fruits and vegetables’ … if you don’t have a vehicle in Sipekne’katik where it takes 25 minutes in a car to get fresh produce, you’re not going to be able to do that,” Dhara said.
That’s why the Canadian Diabetes Association is calling for policy changes that will help prevent diabetes in First Nations communities and assist those with the disease in managing it.
“We need to ensure our First Nations communities have access to equitable access to medications, programs, services, education and all of that needs to be culturally appropriate,” said Matte.
Matte says she was encouraged to see the federal government permanently fund the Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative and hopes to see more programming down the road.