Kerrita McClaughlyn: International Diabetes Federation

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Kerrita McClaughlyn (left) and colleagues at the International Diabetes Federation’s 19th World Diabetes Congress in Cape Town, South Africa in December 2006.
Kerrita McClaughlyn is the media relations coordinator of the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) based in Brussels, Belgium. For over 50 years, IDF has been at the forefront of global diabetes advocacy. The Federation is committed to raising global awareness of diabetes, promoting adequate diabetes care and prevention, and encouraging activities towards finding a cure for the different types of diabetes that many people are not aware of.
Kerrita answered my questions over email. Here’s Kerrita…


Congratulations! The United Nations recently passed a resolution recognizing the global threat of diabetes and IDF had a lot to do with it. What kind of work was involved in getting the UN to pass this resolution?
On 20 December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 61/225: World Diabetes Day. It was a wonderful moment for all of us at the International Diabetes Federation as we had led the Unite for Diabetes campaign for the resolution.
We believe this a monumental gift to the 246 million people living with diabetes and millions more at risk. Finally, governments have acknowledged that diabetes is a chronic, debilitating and costly disease associated with major complications that pose severe risks for families, countries and the entire world. Diabetes kills as many people each year globally as HIV/AIDS, yet awareness remains low.
The resolution designates November 14, the current World Diabetes Day, as a United Nations Day to be observed every year beginning in 2007. Diabetes now joins AIDS as one of only two diseases with a UN-observed day—World AIDS Day on December 1 and World Diabetes Day on November 14. World Diabetes Day has been the primary awareness campaign of the diabetes world since it was introduced by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1991 in response to concern over the escalating incidence of diabetes around the world.
The World Diabetes Day resolution is recognition by the United Nations that diabetes has become a global pandemic. Our Unite for Diabetes campaign worked tirelessly after the launch in June 2006 to make that message heard. We are proud of the efforts of a broad coalition of IDF’s 198 member associations from 158 countries, the majority of the world’s global scientific and professional diabetes societies, industry partners, as well as many charitable foundations and service organizations who came together to realize this dream.
The push for the resolution involved a political approach at the top where we lobbied each of the 192 Member States to vote in support of a resolution. The main argument was that diabetes has become an epidemic that affects both the developed and developing world and will undermine the economic progress in many countries. We put the message that to do nothing is no longer an option. At the grassroots level, we tried to raise awareness of the devastating effects of diabetes among people living with diabetes and their families, healthcare providers, non-governmental organizations through our members associations in each country.
IDF does a great job in its communication materials of breaking down how diabetes affects individual lives, communities, and societies on a global scale. Can you give some examples of how diabetes is a global threat?
I think what was most striking for me when I joined IDF was realizing how little I knew about diabetes despite covering health as a reporter and doing communications for a U.S. government health agency. Yet, I, like many people just assumed that it was a disease that old people get.
It was frightening to realize just how wrong I was. Diabetes can affect newborns, toddlers, children, teenagers and adults of all ages. The theme of World Diabetes Day for 2007 and 2008 is Diabetes in Children. It aims to educate the world that children do get diabetes and many die from a lack of access to appropriate care, education and life-saving medication.
Globally 440,000 children under 14 are living with type 1 diabetes. Each year, 75,000 more develop the disease. People with type 1 diabetes produce very little or no insulin. The disease can affect people of any age, but usually occurs in children or young adults. People with this form of diabetes need injections of insulin every day in order to control the levels of glucose in their blood. If people with type 1 diabetes do not have access to insulin, they die. This is the case for many children in poor countries.
What you hear about in the news, with the increasing reports of obesity, lack of exercise and access to healthy food is type 2 diabetes—the most common form—which is responsible for 90 to 95% of all diabetes. Because of increasing obesity among young people, lack of exercise at school or home, and lack of access to fruits and vegetables, more youth and young adults are getting diabetes. It’s not just in the poor world but in many cities in the United States,
People with type 2 diabetes do not usually require injections of insulin. They can often control the glucose in their blood by watching their diet, taking regular exercise, oral medication, and possibly insulin.
Currently, over 246 million adults are living with diabetes. This is roughly 6% of the world’s population. By 2025, 380 million will live with the disease. The United States does not escape diabetes. Some 20 million Americans live with diabetes today and over 25 million will have the disease within 20 years. Of the top ten countries with the highest number of people living with diabetes, the United States ranks number 3 after India and China.
Diabetes is a deadly disease. Every 10 seconds someone dies from diabetes and in that same 10 seconds, two people develop the disease. It is a significant cause of blindness, heart attacks, stroke, kidney failure and amputations. This is why global awareness is needed. We need to prevent diabetes and prevent complications in people with diabetes.
The IDF works with NGOs around the world to raise awareness of diabetes. What would you say are some of the cultural barriers that different NGOs face in different parts of the world when combating diabetes?
In many countries there is a no or low understanding of diabetes. The health priorities are also often given to infectious diseases in their health care system. As a result, many NGOs remain unfunded, they do the best they can to provide access to care but many people living with diabetes go without lifesaving medication because they can’t afford it or because it’s just not there.
In many countries the government taxes insulin heavily, even if it is being donated, it remains unaffordable for the people that need it most. As a result in many countries people die unnecessarily despite the best efforts of the diabetes associations.
The other problem is awareness. In many countries, many people remain undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed. Diabetes associations globally are doing their best to raise awareness of diabetes and to try to limit the spread of the epidemic in their countries. Many have launched campaigns about prevention to stop the increase in the cases of type 2 diabetes, while others struggle with caring for people already living with diabetes so that they don’t develop painful complications and die early.
Prevention is a hard message in countries where being overweight is considered a sign of wealth. At the other end of the spectrum, having diabetes is associated with having a poor lifestyle which can lead to a sense of blame.
Is there a campaign to raise awareness around diabetes that is focused on women?
At this point awareness is so low that campaigns need to be widely focused.
What particular challenges do women face when combating diabetes?
In many poor countries, they are rejected for marriage and shunned by their families because they have diabetes. Both their families and prospective husbands see them as a burden and many are often cast aside. In other countries, women are not diagnosed because they are forbidden to go to a male doctor and therefore are denied a fundamental human right, the right to health.
What is also new globally is that diabetes is getting younger and many women are developing the disease in their reproductive years and in their economically productive years. This is a double whammy for most women, especially if these women do not have access to health insurance, access to care or appropriate care. Women with or without diabetes are at risk of developing gestational diabetes (diabetes in pregnancy), again due to increase in food and lack of exercise.
Women in rich countries also face challenges. In many countries people with diabetes are restricted from holding certain jobs and are often fearful of revealing the disease in the workplace. Women with diabetes also must become experts on food and good nutrition but in many neighborhoods in many major cities in the U.S., poor women do not have easy access to supermarkets or food co-ops and select cheap, unhealthy food options. This poses a huge risk not just for their health but the health of their families as they are likely to develop the disease.
The same is true of exercise and healthy living. Many parents worry about safety or don’t have access to playgrounds and parks in their neighborhoods. In addition, schools have cut out or severely reduced gym so children never get a chance to be physically active. Access to parks and playgrounds, sports in schools, neighborhood supermarkets, labeling on foods are government issues, not people issues. Many women and their families do not have a choice, they are set up to get this disease and many others linked to obesity and lack of exercise.
Our magazine, Diabetes Voice did a special issue on women and diabetes that has a lot of information that women with and without diabetes should know. It’s available for free at http://www.diabetesvoice.org/issues/2002-10/.
The UN Resolution on diabetes and IDF’s Unite for Diabetes campaign give us the tools we need to go out and fight for the rights of people living with diabetes and to spread awareness so the millions more at risk do not develop the disease. Women are a key part of that battle as caregivers and decision makers. Women have a political voice and we need to create changes in society that will reverse the global diabetes epidemic.
Does one’s economic class play a big part in one’s probability of getting diabetes?
Diabetes was once a disease of the rich but now, it’s projected that 80% of the diabetes cases in the world are expected to be in poor countries. Diabetes affects all socio-economic groups and is growing rapidly in both the rich and poor world. It hits the poorest hardest.
The causes of the increase in type 2 diabetes globally is: lack of access to healthy foods in poor neighborhoods in rich countries, traditional foods that may be laden in fat, Westernization of food in many poor countries, lack of or poor transportation systems, lack of education in schools, and lack of access to healthcare.
What do you see are your biggest challenges as a media coordinator working on this particular issue?
I think my biggest challenge is just trying to make a dent in the lack of awareness among the general public about the prevalence of diabetes and how they can do their part not to become one of the 380 million people expected to develop the disease. Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented but in many cases type 2 can.
The public needs to lobby their governments for better access to healthy foods, better living environments (sidewalks, playgrounds), to put physical education back in schools and to get more education about the disease.
Diabetes is a dreadful disease with devastating and deadly complications. The lack of awareness of the disease is costing lives. Our goal is to reach 1 billion people with the Unite for Diabetes campaign to inform them of the risks of diabetes and its impact on the economy and society.
What are some upcoming projects for IDF?
On November 14 we will celebrate the first UN-observed World Diabetes Day at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Beginning on November 12, we will have a host of events to usher in World Diabetes Day including many for the general public. Plans are currently being finalized so please visit www.worlddiabetesday.org to find out the activities that will take place in New York and across the globe as it gets closer to November.
As I said before, the theme for the next two World Diabetes Days is Diabetes in Children. Beginning now until the end of 2008, IDF is launching at global campaign aimed at families, educators and governments about the effects of diabetes in children, the need for improved diagnosis and care of children with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes and the need for prevention of type 2 diabetes in children. We hope to save lives and to improve care globally for children with diabetes.
With the passage of the UN Resolution, IDF is working to create national diabetes programs for countries where one is missing and to improve the programs in countries already with a program. We will also continue to publish data on the global burden of diabetes—a global report card—and to advocate for improved care of people living with diabetes and prevention for the people at risk. Our aim is to reach 1 billion people with our messaging. Fifty percent of people do not know they have diabetes and these are the people we are trying to reach.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Many people with diabetes, up to 50% in some countries, are unaware that they have type 2 diabetes until it is too late and the complications of diabetes are present. I would encourage everyone reading this to visit the campaign website and become informed of the risks of diabetes and to get screened for the disease.

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One Comment

  1. mpeterson
    Posted March 31, 2007 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this. As a Type 1 Diabetic myself I certainly am interested in their activism.

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