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As we deal with one health crisis, we're blind to another


It’s been overshadowed by COVID-19, but diabetes is a silent epidemic that governments must respond to and responsibly fund, argues Dr James Muecke.

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As we deal with one health crisis, we’re blind to another.

Diabetes, primarily type 2 diabetes, was the most significant health issue facing Australia before the pandemic, and I fear that, despite treasurer Josh Frydenberg announcing a recent gargantuan health budget, the Government has overlooked this already alarming crisis.

Since becoming 2020 Australian of the Year, I have felt a profound responsibility to use the platform to advocate for better health outcomes.

I have spent the last 30 years as an eye surgeon fighting the blinding yet avoidable complications of diabetes and have seen the devastating impact this condition can have on individuals and their families.

The past year has been incredibly challenging for people living with chronic illness. The outcomes for those with diabetes, who have compromised immune systems, are frightening. If a person has poorly managed diabetes, which is often exacerbated by an unhealthy diet, complications such as blindness, gangrene, kidney failure, dementia, heart attack and stroke can ensue. They are also ten times more likely to die from COVID-19.

Many Australians living with diabetes without concessions have exorbitant overheads, with costs reaching upwards of $9,700 a year for those with type 2 diabetes and up to $16,700 for those with type 1 diabetes.

I hope the Government explores the cost that diabetes continues to have on many aspects of the economy and looks at expanding the National Diabetes Services Scheme (NDSS) subsidy so more people can afford better to manage their condition with technologies like Flash Glucose Monitoring.

COVID-19 has created enormous demands on the federal budget, but it’s important to remember that Australia was already living with this existing and growing health emergency.

Better diabetes management is a good starting point; however, it does concern me that addressing the root cause of Australia’s greatest health challenge –  our poor diet – is not a top priority for the Government.

Last year, I proposed a multi-pronged strategy to reverse our chronic disease epidemic at meetings with both the federal and shadow Health Ministers. Yet, there was no mention of new funding for either type of diabetes in the latest budget.

I have met with supermarket and service station executives as well as industry leaders to encourage them to stop their predatory marketing. I have written to universities, hospitals, and schools to raise awareness of the lasting effect sugar can have on our society and push for healthier food choices.

Over the coming 12 months, there are several critical decisions the Federal Government must make to address this epidemic.

Of utmost priority, the federal government need to highlight the harms of ultra-processed foods and sugar and launch a multimedia campaign to raise awareness of the preventability and reversibility of type 2 diabetes.

There also needs to be widening of the eligibility criteria of the NDSS subsidy for people with all types of diabetes. The existing glucose monitoring technology subsidy ticks a box, but to mean something to Australian patients, it needs to be more accessible.

In 2021, I am calling for urgent action from our Federal Government. Australia is dealing with a neglected health crisis, and we need to do all we can to make life affordable and safe for those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Adelaide opthamologist Dr James Muecke was named Australian of the Year for his work with Sight for All, training eye specialists worldwide to sustainably prevent and treat blinding diseases.

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