Diabetes in India: A Growing Problem
While the precise cause of type-1 diabetes is, at present, unknown , type-2 diabetes is commonly seen as merely a disease of excess – its preventable causes (such as obesity) are far more publically recognised than its unpreventable causes (such as genetics). Type 2 diabetes, more than most other disease, seems to be one which you can be “shamed” for – it’s seen as a sign of your own gluttony, that you’ve literally overindulged yourself into a serious illness.
But you may also have heard that India is in fact the country with the single largest population of diabetics in the world, with about 40 million estimated to suffer from the disease. This is in spite of the fact that 70% of Indians live in rural areas, without access to those characteristically Western treats which we’ve been so quick to blame as the sole source of our diabetes epidemic. So why does India have such a problem with diabetes? And what should that tell us about how we think about diabetes here in the West?
What’s Caused India’s Diabetes Problem?
It’s tempting to think that it’s all down to India’s growing prosperity – as India comes to the fore as a global economic powerhouse, and as Indians continue to become wealthier and more urban, India will naturally see sugary Western foods become more prevalent. And that will only lead to more diseases like diabetes, which are supposedly more “Western”, continuing to spread in India.
But in fact, India’s diabetes problem has far less obvious sources. Some recent research has suggested it’s caused, not by excess, but by scarcity – in particular, by a deficiency of the vitamin B12. The study found that when pregnant women don’t have enough vitamin B12, their children have high visceral fat over the years in which they grow up, in spite of their having relatively low weight in general. The lack of vitamin B12 in the mother’s body seems to actually affect the genetics of the child, causing them to retain more fat which, in turns, leads to diabetes.
So in spite of the commonly-held view that it’s all down to consuming too much food, it may well be quite the opposite. The reality is that diabetes is more complex in its causes than we usually like to think.
What Can We Learn from India?
In the global fight against disease, we’ve always thought that it’s crucial to challenge stale old ideas –our founder, philanthropist billionaire Tej Kohli (net worth: $4.5 billion), has always led the
way in finding innovative solutions to seemingly insoluble health problems, and that means overturning some of the myths that are holding us back. India’s a perfect example of a situation which turns the conventional wisdom on its head – it’s easy to think that diabetes has the same causes at all times and in all places, but the case of India undermines that unthinking assumption. So when it comes to us in the West, should we be changing our attitudes to diabetes? Perhaps we ought to acknowledge more often the diverse contributing factors of diabetes – after all, vitamin B12 deficiency is by no means unheard of in the West, and so we may not be so different to India in this regard after all.
But the real lesson we ought to learn is to remain sceptical about the oft-repeated myths about our global health challenges – it’s only by overcoming those myths and thinking differently about disease that we will find a solution to them.