[PHNUTR-L] Modern Ways Open India’s Doors to Diabetes
Kathrynne Holden, MS, RD
fivestar at nutritionucanlivewith.com
Wed Sep 13 15:18:43 PDT 2006
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Modern Ways Open India’s Doors to Diabetes
CHENNAI, India — There are many ways to understand diabetes in this
choking city of automakers and software companies, where the disease
seems as commonplace as saris. One way is through the story of P. Ganam,
50, a proper woman reduced to fake gold.
About 16 percent of adults are thought to have diabetes in Chennai,
which has a population of about five million.
Namas Bhojani for The New York Times
A VULNERABLE POPULATION: Dr. A. Ramachandran, the managing director of
the M.V. Hospital for Diabetes, in Chennai, India, with a diabetic
patient. Three local hospitals are devoted to diabetes.
Enlarge This Image
Namas Bhojani for The New York Times
A NATIONAL SWEET TOOTH: Indians, like these children admiring cookies at
a bakery in Chennai, prize their sweets, which play a major role in
their culture. This penchant, along with an increasingly Westernized
diet of junk food and the population’s genetic susceptibility to
diabetes, has made the country fertile ground for the disease.
Enlarge This Image
Namas Bhojani for The New York Times
BEHIND A STOREFRONT, AN IMPROVISED CLINIC: The proprietor of a medical
shop in the slums of Chennai gives a customer an insulin shot. Diabetics
who are poor at “self-poking” and lack refrigerators for storing insulin
come to him.
Her husband, K. Palayam, had diabetes do its corrosive job on him:
ulcers bore into both feet and cost him a leg. To pay for his care in a
country where health insurance is rare, P. Ganam sold all her cherished
jewelry — gold, as she saw it, swapped for life.
She was asked about the necklaces and bracelets she was now wearing.
They were, as it happened, worthless impostors.
“Diabetes,” she said, “has the gold.”
And now, Ms. Ganam, the scaffolding of her hard-won middle-class
existence already undone, has diabetes too.
In its hushed but unrelenting manner, Type 2 diabetes is engulfing
India, swallowing up the legs and jewels of those comfortable enough to
put on weight in a country better known for famine. Here, juxtaposed
alongside the stick-thin poverty, the malaria and the AIDS, the number
of diabetics now totals around 35 million, and counting.
The future looks only more ominous as India hurtles into the present,
modernizing and urbanizing at blinding speed. Even more of its 1.1
billion people seem destined to become heavier and more vulnerable to
Type 2 diabetes, a disease of high blood sugar brought on by obesity,
inactivity and genes, often culminating in blindness, amputations and
heart failure. In 20 years, projections are that there may be a
staggering 75 million Indian diabetics.
“Diabetes unfortunately is the price you pay for progress,” said Dr. A.
Ramachandran, the managing director of the M.V. Hospital for Diabetes,
in Chennai (formerly Madras).
For decades, Type 2 diabetes has been the “rich man’s burden,” a problem
for industrialized countries to solve.
But as the sugar disease, as it is often called, has penetrated the
United States and other developed nations, it has also trespassed deep
into the far more populous developing world.
In Italy or Germany or Japan, diabetes is on the rise. In Bahrain and
Cambodia and Mexico — where industrialization and Western food habits
have taken hold— it is rising even faster. For the world has now reached
the point, according to the United Nations, where more people are
overweight than undernourished.
Diabetes does not convey the ghastly despair of AIDS or other killers.
But more people worldwide now die from chronic diseases like diabetes
than from communicable diseases. And the World Health Organization
expects that of the more than 350 million diabetics projected in 2025,
three-fourths will inhabit the third world.
“I’m concerned for virtually every country where there’s modernization
going on, because of the diabetes that follows,” said Dr. Paul Zimmet,
the director of the International Diabetes Institute in Melbourne,
Australia. “I’m fearful of the resources ever being available to address
India and China are already home to more diabetics than any other
country. Prevalence among adults in India is estimated about 6 percent,
two-thirds of that in the United States, but the illness is traveling
faster, particularly in the country’s large cities.
Throughout the world, Type 2 diabetes, once predominantly a disease of
the old, has been striking younger people. But because Indians have such
a pronounced genetic vulnerability to the disease, they tend to contract
it 10 years earlier than people in developed countries. It is because
India is so youthful — half the population is under 25 — that the future
of diabetes here is so chilling.
In this boiling city of five million perched on the Bay of Bengal, amid
the bleating horns of the autorickshaws and the shriveled mendicants
peddling combs on the dust-beaten streets, diabetes can be found everywhere.
A Noxious Sign of Success
The conventional way to see India is to inspect the want — the want for
food, the want for money, the want for life. The 300 million who
struggle below the poverty line. The debt-crippled farmers who kill
themselves. The millions of children with too little to eat.
But there is another way to see it: through its newfound excesses and
expanding middle and upper classes. In a changing India, it seems to go
this way: make good money and get cars, get houses, get servants, get
meals out, get diabetes.
In perverse fashion, obesity and diabetes stand almost as joint totems
Last year, for instance, the MW fast-food and ice cream restaurant in
this city proclaimed a special promotion: “Overweight? Congratulations.”
The limited-time deal afforded diners savings equal to 50 percent of
their weight (in kilograms). The heaviest arrival lugged in 135
kilograms (297 pounds) and ate lustily at 67.5 percent off.
Too much food has pernicious implications for a people with a genetic
susceptibility to diabetes, possibly the byproduct of ancestral genes
developed to hoard fat during cycles of feast and famine. This
vulnerability was first spotted decades ago when immigrant Indians
settled in Western countries and in their retrofitted lifestyles got
diabetes at levels dwarfing those in India. Now Westernization has come
to India and is bringing the disease home.
Though 70 percent of the population remains rural, Indians are steadily
forsaking paddy fields for a city lifestyle that entails less movement,
more fattening foods and higher stress: a toxic brew for diabetes. In
Chennai, about 16 percent of adults are thought to have the disease, one
of India’s highest concentrations, more than the soaring levels in New
York, and triple the rate two decades ago. Three local hospitals,
quaintly known as the sugar hospitals, are devoted to the illness.
The traditional Indian diet can itself be generous with calories. But
urban residents switch from ragi and fresh vegetables to fried fast food
and processed goods. The pungent aromas of quick-food emporiums waft
everywhere here: Sowbakiya Fast Food, Nic-Nac Fast Food, Pizza Hut. Coke
and Pepsi are pervasive, but rarely their diet versions.
The country boasts a ravenous sweet tooth, hence the ubiquitous sweet
shops, where customers eagerly lap up laddu and badam pista rolls.
Sweets are obligatory at social occasions — birthdays, office parties,
mourning observances for the dead — and during any visit to someone’s
home, a signal of how welcome the visitors are and that God is present.
“When you come to the office after getting a haircut, people say, ‘So
where are the sweets?’ ” said Dr. N. Murugesan, the project director at
the M.V. Hospital for Diabetes.
The sovereignty of sweets can pose ticklish choices for a doctor. Trying
to set an example, Dr. V. Mohan, chairman of the Diabetes Specialities
Centre, a local hospital, said he had omitted sweets at a business
affair he arranged, and nearly incited a riot. Last year, his daughter
was married. Lesson learned, he laid out a spread of regular sweets on
one side of the hall and on the other stationed a table laden with
sugar-free treats. Everyone left smiling.
In the United States, an inverse correlation persists between income and
diabetes. Since fattening food is cheap, the poor become heavier than
the rich, and they exercise less and receive inferior health care. In
India, the disease tends to directly track income.
“Jokingly in talks, I say you haven’t made it in society until you get a
touch of diabetes,” Dr. Mohan said. He points out that people who once
balanced water jugs and construction material on their heads now carry
nothing heavier than a cellphone. At a four-star restaurant, it is not
unusual to see a patron yank out his kit and give himself an insulin
The very wealthy have begun to recoil at ballooning waistlines, and
there has been a rise in slimming centers and stomach-shrinking
operations. In high-end stores, one can find a CD, “Music for Diabetes,”
with raga selections chosen to dampen stress.
The rest of urban India, however, sits and eats.
In Chennai, workers in the software industry rank among the envied
elite. Doctors worry about their habits — tapping keys for exercise,
ingesting junk food at the computer. Dr. C. R. Anand Moses, a local
diabetologist, sees a steady parade of eager software professionals,
devoured by diabetes. “They work impossible hours sitting still,” he said.
S. Venkatesh, 28, a thick-around-the-middle programmer, knows the
diabetes narrative. Much of his work is for Western companies that
operate during the Indian night. So he works in the dark, sleeps in the day.
“The software industry is full of pressure, because you are paid well,”
he said. “In India, if you work in software, your hours are the office.”
His sole exercise is to sometimes climb the stairs. A year and a half
ago, he found out he had diabetes.
Unshod, and Unprotected
The diabetic foot is a recurrent backdrop among the unending cases that
clog the waiting area at the M.V. Hospital. Dr. Ramachandran, its
managing director, sees the parade of festering sores and frightful
infections. He knows that only creative thinking can help.
The difficulty is that bare feet prevail here. People shuck their shoes
before funneling into homes, some offices and always the temple. Farmers
go barefoot in the country. In the cities, autorickshaw operators
thunder through town, flesh pressed against hot pedals.
Diabetes, though, ruins sensation in the legs, and foot infections go
undetected and are often a preamble to amputations. So doctors like Dr.
Ramachandran strongly recommend against going barefoot. Yet the culture
demands precisely the opposite.
Seeking a middle ground, Dr. Ramachandran presses his patients to don
what he calls Temple Socks during worship. They are made at his
hospital, conventional socks with rubber bases stitched inside. They are
a slow sell.
Dr. Vijay Viswanathan, the hospital’s joint director, gives patients
stickers to affix to their bathroom mirrors: “Take care of your feet.”
Like doctors elsewhere, he promotes custom shoes. He drifted into them
because of leprosy footwear.
Leprosy damages feet and requires special shoes, with tougher undersoles
and without nails or sharp edges, that also suit diabetics. But when the
diabetics in the telltale footwear appeared at restaurants, they were
shooed away, thought to be lepers. So now the hospital makes distinctly
The consequences of the diabetic foot can be grim. While the affliction
knows no class distinctions, the solutions do.
In his lectures, Dr. Ramachandran recounts the case of an impoverished
diabetic with a hideously infected leg. Unable to find medical care, he
laid the leg across the railroad tracks. The next train to hurtle past
did the surgery.
For a limb replacement, the very poor may make do with a $50 wooden leg
that does not bend. A woman like Mrs. Chitrarangarajan, 49, who runs a
school for the autistic and is married to an oil executive, opts for the
best. Her right leg was surrendered to diabetes in 2001. She found a
German leg for $6,000 and ordered it over the Internet.
S. P. M. Ameer owned a shoe store when diabetes befell him 30 years ago.
Soon, circulatory problems attacked, he closed his shop, he lost his
wife, then his leg last January.
Now, at 58, occupying a mirthless room in a cheap hotel on a rackety
side street, he no longer recognized the solemn shape of his life. He
rarely left his squalid room. “Who hires a man without a leg?” he asked.
He had yet to arrange for a prosthesis. He had no way to pay for one.
“God has to apply,” he said.
These stories circulate. But the cultural imperatives hold strong. Even
in the sugar hospitals, with admonishments plastered on the walls, some
patients insouciantly stride about barefoot. Directly outside the office
of one local sugar doctor, beside a sign preaching against the perils of
bare feet, another sign notified patients to remove their shoes before
entering. And so, barefoot, they sat before him and heard him lecture
them not to go barefoot.
Sick Without a Safety Net
Krishnasamy Srinivasan, 66, did not look good. He rarely did anymore. He
was recumbent in a hospital bed, his shirt off, his eyes underslung with
bags. He had come in by train for another checkup. He now lived deep in
the suburbs, where it was cheaper, part of the sad new mix of his life.
He had done very well as a textile exporter, came to own four homes, and
enjoyed rental income from those he did not occupy. Then diabetes hit
when he was 40. He paid it little mind as it marinated inside his body.
Over the last 15 years came heart problems and the need for bypass
surgery. His kidneys deteriorated. He is now on dialysis.
He held up the needle-marked right arm of his malfunctioning body,
identifying it as “my dialysis arm.”
He had to stop working. To cover the medical costs, he sold three of the
homes. His family has been living off the evaporating proceeds, their
Diabetes is bankrupting people in the country, often the reasonably well
off, and mainly because of a lack of insurance.
Few in India have health insurance, and among those who do, policies
generally do not cover diabetes. Middle-class diabetics often exhaust a
quarter or more of their income on medications and care. Instances
abound where the sick must sell their possessions and compress their
lives to feed the diabetes maw.
S. Kalyanasundaram, the chief regional manager in charge at the Chennai
office of the National Insurance Company, one of the country’s biggest,
explained that the issue with insurance was the odds. “Insurance can
only work if the law of averages applies,” he said. “There are too many
people with diabetes.”
Some concepts are easy to sell in India, Mr. Kalyanasundaram said, but
health insurance is not one of them. “The capacity to pay is not there,”
he said. “And many people take disease as a God-given thing to just
accept. So why buy insurance?”
Things are beginning to change, even the possibility that policies may
cover diabetes for an appropriate premium, but who knows how much they
will change? Mr. Kalyanasundaram mentioned that certain preferential
customers merited customized policies with an unorthodox clause. If they
have diabetes and claim no expenses for four years, then afterward their
diabetes will be covered.
“We are testing a belief,” he said. “We think it possible that if
diabetes doesn’t manifest in those four years, then it will not manifest
in the future.”
It was an odd thought for a disease that usually worsens with time. As
for the results, he said it was too early to know how the test was
going. “We are still testing.”
With many things it is still too early in India. And so rural dwellers
often cope with unavailable or inaccessible health care, frequently
relying on unlicensed doctors, many knowing little, if anything, about
diabetes. Diabetes researchers estimate that three-quarters of those
stricken with the disease in rural villages do not know they have it.
In urban areas, the sick, other than the poorest, prefer to bypass
beleaguered government hospitals and seek private care. But without
insurance, the cost of a long-term illness can be crushing.
Mr. Srinivasan’s wife, Srinivasan Muthammal, 61, also has the sugar, but
not its complications yet. Like her husband, she is overweight. As she
listened to him talk of their black hours, her face was frozen.
“We are angry with the god,” she said. “You gave us four houses in four
directions and all the wealth, and now you have taken it all away. Why?”
Mr. Srinivasan suggested they had cash for one more year, perhaps a
“I’m angry with the diabetes,” he said. “You are a pauper all because of
Till Diabetes Do Us Part
Divorce is rare in India, but in these changing times it is very much on
the upsweep. Diabetes, here and there, even figures in the marital
strife. Women may be stigmatized. Men find themselves impotent and then
K. Sumathi, a Chennai lawyer who sometimes deals in the accelerating
number of divorces, appreciates the impact of diabetes in a country
where different centuries breathe side by side.
She said a young woman with diabetes, for example, is often deemed
damaged and unmarriageable, or must marry into a lower caste. Indian law
recognizes five broad grounds for divorce, one being if either spouse
acquires a chronic disease. Diabetes can rapidly debilitate a
breadwinner and impose impotency, either outcome a solid marriage wrecker.
She told the story of a recent case: A wife, living as custom has it
with her in-laws, said the stress of the circumstances contributed to
her getting diabetes. She wound up in a diabetic coma and had to be
hospitalized. Her husband, a dentist, chose to attend to cavities rather
than visit her. The divorce was completed seven months ago.
There was also the account of a husband who accused his unhappy wife of
sneaking extra sugar in his tea, hoping he would acquire diabetes and
die. It proved to be a poor concept. He survived. The marriage did not.
J. Vasanthakumari, a marriage counselor who is friendly with Ms.
Sumathi, said she has seen the disease percolate in the back stories of
some of her clientele. Diabetes. Then sexual dysfunction. Unhappiness.
Appointments with her.
“You must understand one basic thing,” she said. “People in personal
matters will not bring diabetes to the surface. But women tell me, ‘He’s
not affectionate, he’s not taking care of me, he’s not like before.’
It’s the diabetes.”
She went on: “Sometimes someone gets diabetes partly because he’s an
alcoholic. The marriage falls apart. The real reason is the alcoholism.
But the diabetes becomes the last straw on the camel’s back.”
Folklore and Frustration
The shabby disease remedy shop was small for its outsize promises. A
dusty storefront crunched between souvenir stands, it sat near the
Kapaleeswarar temple, a familiar tourist choice in Chennai. Inside
spilled a teetering mass of ready relief for arthritis, heartburn, gout,
piles. Beneath the scalding sun, an ox cart pounded past, scattering a
swarm of people padding down the street.
The grizzled proprietor, who was asked if he had anything for diabetes,
readily proffered a bottle of pea-soup-colored liquid. It cost roughly
$3. Its exact contents, the man said, were as privileged as Coke’s
formula. But drink a capful twice a day for three months, he assured,
and the diabetes would vanish.
Though no universal cure exists for diabetes, “cures” and other
mischievous medicines nonetheless abound in India. Much of the
population gravitates to cryptic beliefs threaded with untruths that are
hard to nullify.
People believe in bitter gourd juice and fenugreek, an Indian spice,
which can temper sugar levels, but are not cures. Some years ago, the
wood water cure gained considerable traction. Drink water stored
overnight in a tumbler made of Pterocarpus marsupium heartwood, the
promotion went, and it would wash away the diabetes.
All this exasperates Dr. Murugesan. He is among those trying to stanch
the spread of the disease. Diabetes education is hard enough, without
tomfoolery and witchcraft to discredit.
He had something to show on his desktop computer at the M.V. Hospital
for Diabetes, a prevention program known as “Chubby Cheeks.” Animated
mothers on the screen merrily admitted that they associated being chubby
with health. Animated chubby students chafed that their parents refused
to let them play, but forced them to study endlessly so they could
become doctors and engineers. They studied, they sat, they enlarged. Dr.
Murugesan takes his cautionary tale around to schools and waves it like
Dr. Murugesan is himself an Indian diabetes story. A health educator, he
devoted 20 years to erasing leprosy in southern India. Two years ago,
with that scourge largely beaten back, he itched for a fresh menace. He
chose diabetes. He saw its rapid ascent.
What’s more, he had diabetes.
Upon enlisting in the sugar fight, he felt it behooved him to test the
blood sugar levels of his own family, and he excavated truths he had not
wished for. His wife, daughter and one of his sons were all bordering on
becoming diabetic. His other son, just 28 then, already had diabetes.
“I say it’s like Jesus Christ,” he said. “When you don’t look for him,
he’s not there. When you look for him, he’s there. You look for
diabetes, and it’s there.”
Prevention, he recognizes, is a mountainous climb in a country with a
severe shortage of medical workers. What health care money exists is
overwhelmingly applied to infectious perils.
The health minister, Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss, recently said he would begin
a diabetes program, but the timetable and scope are unclear. Indian
politicians in pursuit of votes rarely campaign on matters of health,
but promise the poor cheap rice or free color televisions.
All of which perpetuates a dual continuum. Rural Indians flock to the
cities, only to encounter diabetes, while Westernization sweeps its way
to the villages, carrying diabetes as its passenger.
Thus Dr. Mohan, among other efforts, dispatches prevention teams to
Chunampet, a cluster of villages a couple of hours south that are a
feeder area for Chennai. Most of the villagers have no idea what
Meanwhile, Dr. Murugesan has enlistees operating in the Srinivasapuram
slum, a grid of cramped thatched huts and makeshift tents that hug
Chennai’s long beach.
The diabetes rates among these raggedly lives are notably below those of
the middle and upper classes. But they are catching up.
When evening gushes over the slum and the mosquitoes emerge, a
scattering of diabetics drift over to the tiny Vijaya Medical shop. They
are poor at “self-poking,” as they explain, and have no refrigerators to
chill their insulin. Some fill mud pots with water and stuff their vials
in there. Others rely on the medical shop proprietor, a merry young man
with legs withered by polio.
He tapes their names to the appropriate bottles and, each day,
Misconceptions populate the conversations. Some residents say they
occasionally have diabetes: a few years with it, then a few years
without it. They think that diabetes pays visits.
Others are rabid apologists for the disease. Uninterested in eating
less, they say that when they feel like a big meal, a luscious plate of
sweets, they just swallow an extra pill or inject themselves with more
“They don’t understand,” Dr. Murugesan said. “They don’t see the
darkness of this disease.”
Late in the day, back at the M.V. Hospital, he trooped upstairs to the
rooftop auditorium, where 40-odd doctors had assembled to talk about
prevention efforts. One thing they talked of uncomfortably: A particular
profession in India, they heard, a well-paying one involving a lot of
standing around, had practitioners who did not necessarily heed their
The profession was thick with diabetes. It was doctors themselves.
Kathrynne Holden, MS, RD < fivestar at nutritionucanlivewith.com >
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