Diabetes and complications from diabetes appear to be on the rise in people in northeast Calgary, particularly in certain communities – an ophthalmologist warns that it has reached “epidemic” proportions.
Dr. Jag Anand says diabetes brings the most people to his retina clinic in northeast Calgary.
“I see more patients and they come with more complications. It’s a big problem,” Anand said, calling it an “epidemic”.
“And if you are a South Asian or an East Indian, you have a five to six times higher risk of developing diabetes than your fellow compatriots. And of course it is also very high among the indigenous population.”
Many of these complications go beyond retinopathy. He hears of patients with kidney and heart problems, diabetic feet, and numbness in the lower extremities – all conditions he says should have been diagnosed earlier.
Anand said many of his patients had put off seeing a doctor until the disease progressed further than necessary.
“Most of my patients sometimes do two jobs and are so busy, working so hard to pay off their mortgage and other bills that they neglect their health,” he said.
He said that knowledge about the risks and complications of diabetes remains very low in many northeastern communities.
“If we make people aware that they have to take this seriously, it is a disease that can kill and blind you.”
“It’s like a common thing now.”
Buela David, who came to Canada from India as a child, is one of Anand’s patients – and wishes she had taken diabetes seriously when she developed it 28 years ago.
She tried to regulate her blood sugar levels with diet and medication – but as life got busier and she started working two jobs, her health deteriorated.
“Just like everyone else, I thought I could control it,” said David.
“And just on the pills, then gradually went insulin. Then it started affecting my eyes.”
David swells in the back of his eye that obstructs her vision. She sees Anand every four to six weeks for an intravitreal injection in the eye – but although she’s been on the treatment for four years, she’s not looking forward to it.
In Calgary, the incidence of diabetes is increasing every year. (Alberta Health)
“I panic every time I have to go,” she said.
She agrees with Anand that diabetes is alarmingly common in the city’s South Asian community.
“The friends and families I know, every family has someone [who] is diabetic so it’s like a common thing now, “she said.
Confirmed cases on the rise
Alberta Health Services does not collect specific data to show whether a chronic illness is more common in one part of the city than another.
However, AHS groups its health stats into five geographic zones – and the latest data shows the number of confirmed diabetes cases in the Calgary Zone has nearly doubled in 15 years.
Overall, around one in four Albertans – 1,207,000 Albertans – is affected by the disease because they have been diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, have diabetes or are unaware of the disease Diabetes Canada report in 2021.
Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness. It causes 30 percent of strokes, 40 percent of heart attacks and can impair kidney function.
Adults in the lowest income brackets are 3.9 times more likely to have the disease than adults in the highest income brackets.
According to the Diabetes Canada report, certain populations are at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes:
- South Asian.
- Indigenous people.
These populations make up 42.4 percent of Calgary’s population, and according to the 2016 Canadian Census, many lower-income groups are concentrated in the northeast of the city.
Dialysis use is increasing
Dr. Stuart Ross, an endocrinologist and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Calgary, is unwilling to label diabetes an “epidemic” in northeast Calgary – but says there is no question that it is on the rise.
“Is it going up? Probably yes,” said Ross. “We have data to back it up. Whether you use the word ‘epidemic’ or not, the problem is that it’s a major health problem.”
It’s part of a bigger trend, not just in Calgary but in Canada and many other countries as well, he said.
“Over the years I’ve seen the number of dialysis patients increase dramatically, and we’ve had to open more dialysis clinics across southern Alberta to cope with the number of people,” said Ross.
“That’s an indication that these people didn’t have the right ratings because we have the resources to keep it from progressing.”
He pointed out that many of the most serious complications of diabetes are preventable with proper diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle.
Diabetes strategy needed
Anand is a strong advocate of a national diabetes strategy already found in several Commonwealth countries.
The strategy would include a national program to prevent the rise in cases. It would include a Pharmacare program on diabetes drugs – something Anand calls “the missing piece” in the diabetes puzzle.
“Every country like Australia, England and New Zealand has national eye care programs for diabetics,” Anand said. “If we had that, that itself would help reduce visual impairment from diabetes by at least 80 to 90 percent.”
David wishes she had realized earlier how serious complications from diabetes can be – and believes that people in her community need more education about the disease.
“Especially people who don’t speak English,” said David.[They] I still don’t understand the severity of this disease. So they need to know more. ”