In a packed conference room on Capital Hill last Friday, Margaret Aldan asked those in attendance to stand if they knew anyone with diabetes. Within seconds, not one person was left sitting.
Aldan used the exercise to starkly illustrate the prevalence of diabetes in the Commonwealth and how much more needs to be done to start having an impact in the community—a community that has seen so many of its citizens suffering from this non-communicable disease.
“Imagine in the CNMI, there are 50,000 people or more. Imagine how many more are out there suffering from this disease. We are asking the community as a whole because we cannot do this alone. Our education, outreach or even compliance with medication is something we really need to work together on to see an impact,” said Aldan, who is director of the Division of Public Health.
Acknowledging the continual urgency to combat this public health issue, acting governor Ralph DLG Torres proclaimed November as Diabetes Awareness and Prevention Month and Nov. 14 as CNMI Diabetes Day.
“Diabetes contributes to the greatest CNMI healthcare costs which includes medical referrals. I call upon all citizens to put their health first throughout their lives. I call upon the CNMI’s private institutions to aid in the prevention of diabetes by promoting and making healthy goods and services accessible to all citizens,” he said.
According to the proclamation, Gov. Eloy S. Inos signed on April 13, 2013, a non-communicable disease directive due to the rampant rise of non-communicable diseases, or NCDs. This year’s proclamation comes as a renewed commitment to addressing this public health issue.
The proclamation states that the CNMI has the highest incidence of diabetes and chronic illnesses such as blindness, heart attacks, strokes, and hypertension.
According to Medical Director Dr. Daniel Lamar, “[diabetes] is a problem for each and everyone of us. It affects us individually, our families and our friends, so I really appreciate that our government recognizes this challenge in our community and offers us the opportunity to focus this month on awareness because this is really a continual effort we’ve tried to address for years and we’re just not as successful as we need to be.”
Lamar shared that in the United States, one in every eight person has diabetes. He estimates the number to be much greater in the CNMI. In adults, he says, between 1 in every 3 has diabetes or is pre-diabetic.
“We’re planning a survey for the beginning of the year to define the [disease] much better. We know now that diabetes here affects us much more severely. Dr. Don Hardt shared his statistics and found that here in the CNMI, retinopathy is seen in 70 percent of his patients as opposed to the 13 percent rate in the U.S.,” he said.
Developing retinopathy, he said, puts one at a greater risk of developing blindness due to diabetes, which is also the No. 1 cause for people to go on dialysis.
Diabetes or any other non-communicable disease also puts one at a higher risk of developing infectious diseases such as pneumonia or tuberculosis.
“We need to be much more aggressive in addressing this. We need a whole-of-society approach. This involves our government, the schools, the hospital, the faith-based organizations, and the community,” Lamar said.
Diabetes Project Assistant Amber Lynn Mendiola stated that the reality of diabetes is also seen in the “126-percent increase in newly registered dialysis patients.”
In closing, Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. chief executive officer Esther Muna said, “It is very difficult to change eating habits and to change lifestyles. We want this to be done everyday of the year. [Diabetes] can be managed, it can be prevented and we hope and encourage people to come to CHCC and ask questions. We are here to help you.” (Daisy Demapan)