TREATMENT: A doctor gives consultations to a resident at a diabetes awareness event in Hefei, Anhui Province, on November 14, 2012, or World Diabetes Day (XINHUA)
Han Hongying, 59, remembers the numbing shock when she was diagnosed with diabetes 15 years ago. "I was scared of the pain that the disease would bring to me and my family," said Han, a retired worker in Beijing.
Han's biggest fear was the thought of battling it for the rest of her life. Danger of complications such as amputation, blindness, kidney failure and cardiovascular disease lingered in her mind. "A life of treatment will cost a large sum of money and may destroy me psychologically," she said.
Han's experience mirrors that of millions of Chinese diabetics.
According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on September 3, 2013, an estimated 11.6 percent of Chinese adults have diabetes, which equates to 100 million people. It also revealed that about 50.1 percent of adults are pre-diabetic patients, but only 30.1 percent of sufferers are aware of their illness.
The study also noted that the data suggested that diabetes in the Chinese general population has reached an alarming level and a major epidemic of diabetic complications, such as cardiovascular disease, strokes and chronic kidney disease, will erupt in the country in the near future if there is no direct intervention from the government.
Hang Jianmei is not surprised by the findings. As a medical professional specializing in preventing diabetes, she has seen an alarming number of patients succumb to the disease because of their affluent lifestyle.
"The diabetes epidemic is a byproduct of China's economic prosperity. The lifestyle that many Chinese pursue today is the greatest threat to their health," said Hang, Director of Beijing Jianheng Diabetes Hospital.
Hang noted that as Chinese people become more affluent, they eat more high-protein and fatty foods.
"People now live in a stressful, fast-paced society where technology and machines have taken over many physical tasks. Eating too much, but exercising less means more people are putting on weight, which in turn damages insulin production in the body," Hang said. "Without enough insulin, sugar cannot be transformed into energy and it accumulates in the blood. When sugar in the blood reaches a certain level, people may get diabetes."
The disease, which is more prevalent in seniors, is spreading to younger people as the obesity rate in Chinese youth rises. A report released in August 2012 in Obesity Reviews by the International Association for the Study of Obesity showed that 12 percent of Chinese children are overweight and 1.9 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds, about 1.7 million, have diabetes, four times more than their U.S. peers. About 14.9 percent of Chinese children and teenagers exhibit pre-diabetic symptoms, it added.
"The high rates indicate that the public needs to pay more attention to diabetes and its implications for economic development," Hang said.
The nation's health system is bearing the brunt of the epidemic as it covers the expense of treating diabetic patients. "Even without complications, the daily cost for recuperation amounts to 800-1,000 yuan ($131-164) at least," Hang commented.
The Chinese Society of Diabetes under the Chinese Medical Association jointly conducted a survey with the International Diabetes Federation in 2010. The survey examined 1,920 diabetics in order to examine the economic implications of the disease at that time. It estimated that the total national cost for treating diabetes was 173.4 billion yuan ($28.5 billion) annually, taking up 13 percent of the country's total medical expenditures. On top of this, the frequency at which diabetics use medical services is three to four times that of non-diabetic patients. It also predicted that the figure would rise drastically in the next 10 to 20 years.
"People will lose the ability to work and become effectively disabled because of diabetic complications. This will in turn undermine the productivity of the whole of society," Hang said.