The Slow Pandemic

It is an understatement to say the pandemic has changed life as we know it, even more so as our community is among those at greater risk. The concern mounts as initial data confirm what was predicted – those with chronic conditions are more likely to be hospitalized and in the ICU as a result of COVID-19.1 There are negatives everywhere we look. I’m writing this to share with you one positive for us amidst the global crisis: chronic diseases have the potential to gain new attention post-COVID. We’ve been dealing with a slow pandemic for decades, and that is diabetes. A pandemic is defined as “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.”2 Of course, it’s implied that this disease spreads rapidly from person to person. Ignoring for a moment that diabetes isn’t contagious, let’s quickly take a look at the data for diabetes to understand why the word “pandemic” isotherwise justifiable. Below is a chart depicting the increase in the number of Americans with diabetes from 1958 – 2015.3 It reflects a trend that is being replicated worldwide.

Type 2 diabetes is associated with the majority of this growth. However, the jump in instances is type agnostic; the Journal of Molecular Endocrinology cites several studies that indicate Type 1 diabetes has been on the rise globally since the 1990s.4

Over 30 million people in the United States alone have been diagnosed with diabetes – that’s more than 1 in 10 Americans. There are an additional 84 million adults at risk of developing this disease – that’s another 4 in 10 Americans. (This number is likely even higher since our national population of 328.2 million includes children and these statistics do not).

If over half of our country either has diabetes or is at risk of developing diabetes, we’ve been staring directly into the face of a pandemic for years now. The “slow” aspect, relatively speaking, has tricked us into delaying, denying, blaming, shaming, and more. It has not, in large measure, kicked us into action. But a true pandemic just might.

Leaders across America are understanding what we’ve long known: 1) chronic conditions put people at greater risk of illness and death; and 2) we have a significant proportion of the population who fall into this category – a number that grows every day.

Congress often likes to think in terms of economic impact, and as fiscal stewards of our country, that makes sense. Members know all too well that when it comes to diabetes, the financials are devastating. According to the American Diabetes Association, 1 in every 7 health care dollars is spent treating diabetes and its complications; the overall cost has risen 26% from 2012 to 2017.5

This conversation on spending typically goes in any number of directions – how we allocate, how we support, how we educate, how we treat, and how we prevent. Now the conversation includes how we protect.

To that end, my hope is that policy makers take diabetes more seriously in the months ahead. The human toll is being exposed like never before. Families and individuals impacted by diabetes are now scared for their lives.

It’s one example that the disease does change your life forever in many ways, as more are coming to understand. People everywhere are learning from COVID-19 that diabetes is complex, life altering, and pervasive. It has desperately needed attention, and now we have the world’s ear. Can we lead a new discussion about a new era of focus as the year goes on and tie this to public decisions? I say yes.

As we take care of each other, support our community, and help one another through this, DPAC is also poised to send a strong message to lawmakers as they return to state Capitols and to Congress: Let’s get serious about this. We need action.

- Julie Babbage, CEO, DPAC