No fewer than 420 million adults have diabetes, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said, adding that the number has been increasing steadily over the last three decades.

WHO said in its Global Report on Diabetes that the global prevalence of adult diabetes has nearly quadrupled since 1980.

The UN health agency, therefore, called on people to “eat healthily, be physically active and avoid excessive weight gain”.

Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces, which leads to an increased concentration of glucose in the blood.

The global health body said: “Around 1.6 million deaths can be directly attributed to diabetes each year.

“Diabetes is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attack, stroke and lower limb amputation”.

WHO Spokesperson, Fadela Chaib, said the prevalence of diabetes was largely due to changes in lifestyle.

Chaib said: “We are eating more heavy foods, full of fat and sugar; we are less physically active; and we have a more sedentary way of living.”

As one of the leading causes of death globally, diabetes is a major public health problem, one of four priority non-communicable diseases targeted for action by world leaders, according to WHO.

Even when blood glucose levels are not high enough to warrant a diagnosis of diabetes, damage can occur to the body, elevating the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In 2012 diabetes took 1.5 million lives and higher-than-optimal levels of blood glucose took another 2.2 million.

Of the 3.7 million people who died in that year, 43 per cent occurred before the age of 70.

“The percentage of deaths attributable to high blood glucose or diabetes that occurs prior to age 70 is higher in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries,” WHO cited in the report.

Type-1 diabetes, previously known as childhood-onset diabetes, is characterised by a lack of insulin production and requires daily insulin to regulate blood glucose, but the cause is not known.

However, the majority of people are affected by type-2 diabetes, which results from the body’s ineffective use of insulin.

Healthy diet, physical activity and avoiding tobacco use can prevent or delay its onset.

Additionally, medication, regular screening and treatment for complications are also available.

“An accurate diagnosis is the first step to getting effective treatment,” WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said earlier in the year.

In its report, WHO called on governments to “ensure that people are able to make healthy choices and that health systems are able to diagnose, treat and care for people with diabetes.

The UN General Assembly designated Nov. 14 every year as World Diabetes Day back in 2007, recognising “the urgent need to pursue multilateral efforts to promote and improve human health, and provide access to treatment and health-care education”.

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