Experts Warn of Rising Diabetes Incidence in Cambodia

Though economic growth has improved the livelihoods of a growing number of Cambo­dians, it has also brought lifestyle changes, such as bad eating habits and lack of exercise, that are putting people’s health at risk.

While malnutrition remains a problem through­out the country, diabetes resulting from obesity is emerging as a prevalent health concern among wealthy, urban Cambodians, health experts say.

Cambodian Diabetes Association President Lim Keuky projected that more than 800,000 Cam­bodians—about 5 percent of the po­pu­la­tion—suffer from Type II diabetes, a disease where the body cannot control blood su­gar levels.

“The figure is quite surprisingly high. We did not expect that,” said Lim Keuky, a pharmacologist and endocrinologist.

According to a CDA survey released last week, about 11 percent of the nearly 1,200 adults surveyed in Kompong Cham province were diabetic, and about 25 percent had hypertension, or abnormally high blood pressure.

On the outskirts of Siem Reap town, about 5 percent of the 1,050 adults surveyed by CDA were diabetic, 10 percent were at risk of be­­com­ing diabetic, and 12 percent suffered from hypertension.

“These preliminary results confirm that diabetes is unexpectedly common in Cambodia, with some of the highest rates in Southeast Asia,” Lim Keuky said.

There are two types of diabetes. Type I dia­betes is genetic and emerges in children. This type of the disease cannot be cured, nor controlled by diet and exercise alone. Those suf­fering from this type require insulin in­jections to keep blood sugar levels in check.

Type II diabetes is linked to lifestyle factors. Though some people are genetically predisposed to this type, it usually occurs in overweight adults, who consume too much fatty food and lead sedentary lives. An in­crease in Type II is what is worrying health experts here.

“Lifestyle is a big problem in many developing countries such as Cambodia,” Lim Keuky said. Once people become more affluent, they tend to adopt leisurely lifestyles, he said. “For Cambo­dians, leisure is eating and eating.”

A drastic change in diet, particularly for people who suffered years of starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime, is a shock to the system, Lim Keuky said.

“When their life is normal again like today, [peo­ple] consume too much food and their metabolism cannot adapt.”

He added that after years of hardship, many people tend to avoid physical activity if they can afford to do so. For example, he said, most people would rather hop on a motorbike than walk even short distances.

“They don’t walk and they consume more food,” Lim Keuky said. “If they don’t compensate by physical activities and appropriate food, then there will be problems and health consequences. This is a big problem.”

Symptoms of diabetes include constant fatigue, frequent urination and feeling thirsty all the time. Se­vere complications from the disease can lead to stroke or paralysis in the arms and legs.

If Type II diabetes is detected at an early stage, patients can take oral pills that cause the pancreas to produce more in­su­lin to offset high blood sugar levels, said Dr Chan Sok of the American Medical Center in Phnom Penh.

Treatment should be undertaken with ex­treme caution and only under the guidance of a physician, experts say. They also warn that too much in­sulin can put a patient into a coma.

Preventing Type II diabetes, on the other hand, is easy—eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly. But Lim Keuky said he expects diabetes to be­come increasingly common as more people in Cambodia’s urban centers become more affluent.

“If nothing is being done about [diabetes], the five percent will double to 10 percent 10 years from now,” he said.

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