'We need to make diabetes a big issue'

Diabetes: how the sweet life can be deadly


Too much sugar can kill you, warns former Nunavut Commissioner Peter Irniq, who learned recently he has diabetes.

After reflecting on his experience, Irniq feels the Government of Nunavut isn't doing enough to warn Nunavummiut about the risk of developing diabetes.

"The GN needs to promote healthy eating habits and make sure people don't get diabetes in the first place," Irniq said.

Inuit know diabetes as "timi siuraujaartuqaluartuq" or "sukaqaluartuq, "which means "too much sugar within the body."

Diabetes develops when the body can't process sugars properly, leading to high levels of sugar in the blood. Left unchecked, diabetes can lead to heart attacks, nerve damage, kidney disease and blindness.

Eating fruits and vegetables seems to have a preventive effect, as does exercise and the regular consumption of seal meat.

But Irniq says the GN's "Drop the Pop" campaign – which is supposed to turn Nunavummiut away from drinking sugary soda pop beverages – doesn't work.

That's because Irniq says the slogan doesn't translate well into Inuktitut.

"The GN needs a better slogan, like "why not drink water?" Irniq said.

"That's how we survived for thousands of years. With the way things are going, too many young people are eating pop and potato chips for lunch. They're good candidates for diabetes by the time they're 40 years old."

Since 2005, the GN has used a diabetes strategy that calls for diabetes "teams" to work in the Baffin, Kitikmeot and Kivalliq regions.

These diabetes teams are supposed to be active in every community, helping health workers, families and individual patients prevent and manage diabetes.

But in a recent letter, GN officials told Irniq that the diabetes strategy is moving slowly, due to difficutlies of finding and retaining health staff with the necessary experience and competence.

For that reason, Irniq worries that nurses may be too overloaded to teach people how to prevent or treat diabetes.

Irniq said that because they don't know the risks, many Inuit in Nunavut continue to consume food, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages that are loaded with sugar.

He said Nunavummiut who know they have diabetes tell him they aren't sure about what to do.

As well, there are no special foods or other products designed for diabetics who live in smaller communities, and there are no courses for recently-diagnosed diabetics, similar to one that Irniq recently took in Ottawa.

The GN's health department should hold similar workshops in Nunavut communities, Irniq suggests.

"I would like to be doing that in Inuktitut," he said. "We need to make diabetes a big issue before it becomes a big problem."

Signs and symptoms of diabetes include unusual thirst, frequent urination, weight change, extreme fatigue or lack of energy, blurred vision, frequent or recurring infections, cuts and bruises that are slow to heal, and tingling or numbness in hands or feet.

Treatment for diabetes usually involves a combination of medication and changes to diet.

Irniq has brought his own diabetes under control by taking medication and totally cutting out all sugary foods such as donuts, jam and cake. He now eats mostly meats, fish and sometimes chicken, along with vegetables – "as much as possible."

Irniq, who was born in an iglu and lived on the land during his childhood, said vegetables still feel "foreign" to him.

"But, if I want to be healthy as a diabetic, I have to eat those," he said. "I want to live a healthy life for a long time."

Since changing his diet six months ago, Irniq said he's lost 20 pounds and lowered his blood sugar levels. Recently, he learned his eyesight wasn't damaged from his diabetes – "better news than compensation money for residential school."

The overall diabetes rate for Inuit 15 and over is now roughly equal to the South, where 4.8 per cent of Canadians, about five in 100, suffer from diabetes.

The 2004 Qanuippitaa study in Nunavik found that about five in 100 Nunavimmiut have diabetes, with overweight women at greatest risk.

In Uummannaq, Greenland, more than 14 in 100 residents have diabetes, while in Nuuk, the capital, eight per cent have been diagnosed with diabetes.

And many more Inuit may suffer from diabetes without knowing it. Some studies have concluded the actual rate of diabetes may be two or three times the rate of known diagnosed cases.

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