Central Australia diabetes rates are among the world’s highest, new research shows

Selina and Rhonda Bob await a life-saving phone call – one that could take years.

Their kidneys are failing and they hope they don’t have to wait too long for the organ transplant list.

“I felt sad when I heard the doctors tell me you’re going… being in the kidneys [failure] soon. I thought, ‘You must be lying’,” Selina said.

Each week, the sisters are strapped to a chair for 16 hours while their blood is pumped from their bodies and filtered through a dialysis machine.

The couple were both diagnosed with diabetes – a disease that can damage the kidneys – at a staggering young age.

And in this isolated part of the world, these sisters are not alone in their prognosis.

An aerial view of Uluru in Central Australia.
Researchers have found that diabetes rates in Central Australia are among the highest ever reported worldwide. (ABC News: Michael Franchic)

New research has found that the rate of diabetes in Central Australia is among the highest ever seen worldwide – and they are getting worse, with more people being diagnosed at a much younger age each year than ever before.

The study, published in the open access medical journal BMJ Open, analyzed seven years of health data from more than 21,000 Aboriginal people from 51 remote communities in the Northern Territory.

Lead author is Matthew Hare, an endocrinologist at the Royal Darwin Hospital and senior research officer at Menzies School of Health Research.

He said the new research revealed a growing diabetes epidemic in remote NT communities that was “unprecedented in terms of prevalence.”

“Diabetes rates in these remote communities are increasing to such an extent that now 29 percent of adults in remote Aboriginal communities have diabetes, and this is largely type 2 diabetes,” said Dr. hair.

“The findings of our study were of particular concern for the Central Australia region, where communities have diabetes prevalence rates of up to 40 percent of adults.”

dr. Hare said the last time this type of investigation was conducted was in 2012, and things have gotten much worse since then.

A young doctor stands in an office, leaning against a table.
Dr Matthew Hare says the epidemic is strongly linked to the effects of colonization.(ABC News: Tully Hemsley)

Diabetes no longer a disease of the elderly

Until now, diabetes was thought to be a disease that mainly affected older people, but Dr. Hare said that type 2 diabetes is increasingly common in children.

“We’ve seen cases diagnosed as early as age four,” said Dr. hair.

“And that’s type 2 diabetes, which we previously thought was a condition that’s mostly seen in adults.

“We find that the average age at which type 2 diabetes is diagnosed is in the mid-thirties, which is decades younger compared to national data.

“If you look at the Australian population, most people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are in their 60s or 70s.”

Co-author Dr Amy Rosser, a senior remote physician in a desert community about 300 miles from Alice Springs, said Aboriginal people aged 20-39 in remote parts of the NT were 26 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people of the same age in the national Australian population.

Epidemic related to effects of colonization

dr. Hare said there were numerous drivers behind the growing epidemic, including the intergenerational effects of diabetes during pregnancy and the social and economic inequalities that many people in remote communities still experience today.

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