In some Pacific Islands as many as one in three adults have type 2 diabetes. Photo: Getty.
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Where's the public outrage at the diabetes epidemic?

Worldwide, diabetes kills almost as many people a year as HIV/Aids, and the number of cases of Type 2 diabetes is set to increase by 50 per cent in the next decade. Why is so little being done to contain the epidemic? 

Over a third of adults in England are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal earlier this week – and the number of people at risk of suffering from diabetes has trebled in just ten years.

A few more worrying figures: there are currently 3.2 million people in the UK with Type 2 diabetes. A tenth of the NHS budget goes to treating the condition, according to the charity Diabetes UK. Type 2 diabetes can cut short your life expectancy by ten years. If not properly managed, it can lead to a range of complications including heart disease, blindness, kidney damage and nerve damage.

So are we doing enough to fight the disease? The obvious answer is no. We’re not even coming close.

Let’s look at the global problem too. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that 1.5 million people die of diabetes a year, making it the eighth most common cause of death worldwide, and almost as deadly as HIV/Aids (which kills 1.7 million a year). Diabetes is often thought of a rich country disease, but it isn’t just that: 80 per cent of diabetes deaths are in low or middle income countries.  In some Pacific Islands over a third of adults are diabetic, and in several Gulf countries over a quarter are. In American Samoa, a staggering 47 per cent of adults are diabetic. 

We’re facing a global health crisis and yet there’s little sense from government that it’s being treated as one.  Last year the all party parliamentary group for diabetes reported on the current state of healthcare provision and concluded, in the words of the chair Adrian Sanders, that "diabetes is one of the greatest challenges we face, yet diabetes healthcare is poor, patchy and expensive, and too many people with the condition are not getting the care or support they desperately need.”

In April, a doctor writing in the Spectator wrote that “medically speaking, I’d rather have HIV than diabetes.” His reasoning: thanks to advances in the treatment of the disease, the life expectancy of someone in the UK who is HIV positive is not all that different from someone that of someone without the condition. Those who are HIV positive and receive the right treatment (usually those in richer countries) are unlikely to suffer complications, and anti-retroviral drugs are now administered in tablet form. In contrast, most people with Type 2 diabetes face daily injections.

And, the good news is that globally, rates of HIV transmission are declining. According to the Global Fund, there were 2.3m new HIV infections registered in 2013 – which is still a lot, and the actual figure for HIV infections could be higher – but is nevertheless down 33 per cent since 2001. In contrast, WHO predicts that in the next decade, global cases of diabetes will increase by 50 per cent

When it comes to the battle to contain the spread of HIV/Aids, it has helped that on an international scale, there are now huge multi-government funded agencies such as the Global Fund. This was set up in 2002 and by 2013 had distributed $16bn to various donors, from governments to NGOs to international development agencies, to combat the disease. UN Aids was set up almost a decade earlier, to co-ordinate the many different UN agencies working to combat the disease and tackle related problems from gender equality, to gay rights and legal protection for sex workers.  The global effort to fight diabetes doesn’t come close.

Plus, long before these international co-ordinated efforts, we have to be grateful for the community activists of the 1980s who forced HIV/Aids on to national agendas, providing the initial impetus for the public awareness campaigns, charity outreach work, and medical research helping to contain the spread and impact of the illness. It’s time to get angry about diabetes in the UK, not only because at least 3.2 million people in the country are at risk of dying young, but because we know from the history of HIV/Aids how big a difference ordinary people getting angry can make. 

Much like HIV, a significant proportion of new diabetes cases can be prevented. You can be unlucky, but there are ways of reducing the likelihood of developing the illness. The rise of Type 2 diabetes has been linked to rising obesity in the UK, so tackling under-nutrition and sedentary lifestyles is key.

And again, much like HIV, tackling diabetes is not just a medical issue – you need to look at the social context. There’s also a strong link between poverty and diabetes in Britain: those in the lowest income bracket are two and a half times more likely to develop diabetes than average. This is because those on lower incomes are more likely to be obese, to smoke, to lack exercise and to suffer from high blood pressure.

There will be no easy way of preventing the rise of diabetes. Just as with HIV/Aids, we have to hope for (and fund) the development of new life-lengthening and life-improving treatments. But it will also involve changing modern diets and lifestyles – and that’s not just a matter of changing behaviour, which is hard enough already, but tackling the deprivation that is so often a cause of bad health.

There’s no miracle cure, but there is one sure-fire way of ensuring that millions of people in the UK and globally die younger than they should, and that’s carrying on exactly as we are now. As things stand, the charity Diabetes UK estimate that by 2025 five million people in the country will have Type 2 diabetes. It doesn't have to be like this. Aren’t you a little bit angry?

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.