Jose Gomez-Marquez holding an open glucometer prototype at MIT Little Devices Lab. Credit: Amy Moran-Thomas
In a new book, Amy Moran-Thomas examines how diabetes is reaching epidemic levels in countries across the world.
In Belize, where diabetes is rampant, patients need insulin every day to maintain proper blood sugar levels. But if people lack electricity or a refrigerator, they cannot store insulin at home. Medical advice pamphlets encourage such patients to keep their insulin in the refrigerators at small corner grocery stores instead. And so, in some cases, there the insulin sits — right next to soft drinks which, in good measure, have helped cause the growing diabetes epidemic in the first place.
“That one image, of soda bottles and the insulin side by side, has stuck with me,” says Amy Moran-Thomas, an MIT professor and cultural anthropologist who has spent over 10 years researching and writing about the global diabetes epidemic. “It’s emblematic of the larger problem, a robust infrastructure even in rural areas to deliver foods that are contributing to diabetes, and the huge gaps in global infrastructure for treating the same conditions.”
The International Diabetes Foundation estimates that 425 million people currently have diabetes, and that number is expected to increase to more than 600 million within a generation. (By the foundation’s count, annual diabetes deaths now outnumber those from HIV/AIDS and breast cancer, combined.) U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called chronic illnesses such as diabetes a “public health emergency in slow motion.”
Now Moran-Thomas has chronicled that emergency in a new book, “Traveling with Sugar: Chronicles of a Global Epidemic,” published this month by the University of California Press. In it, Moran-Thomas examines the havoc diabetes has caused in Belize, a Central American country with resource limitations — annual per capita income is under $5,000 — and one that is heavily reliant on cheap, high-glucose foods made with white rice, white flour, and white sugar.
“Before I started getting to know people, I had this idea that infectious diseases were the primary health crisis in a lot of Central America,” says Moran-Thomas, who as a graduate student initially considered studying the problems of parasitic infections. Instead, she discovered, “Everyone was talking about diabetes.”[…]