Half a century ago, Type-2 diabetes barely existed in Greenland. But lifestyle changes among the island’s indigenous people over the past decades means that an epidemic is threatening to spiral out of control.
Around the turn of the century, researchers found that 10 percent of adults over the age of 35 had Type-2 diabetes, and a further 20 percent had pre-diabetes, a precursor to the disease.
“The problem is that the Greenlandic population often eat unhealthy imported food,” Peter Bjerregaard, a professor at the State Institute of Public Health, told Videnskab.dk.
“We see a clear tendency that they eat a lot of cake and sweets and drink a lot of soft drinks. Vegetables and fruit are expensive, and you can’t get them everywhere. The further you get from the urban areas, the harder it is to acquire. But it’s far easier to get a cake and a soft drink. Unhealthy goods are far more accessible and affordable.”
The trend is down to the Inuit population’s transformation from a hunter society to a welfare society. In 1962, under 1 percent of the population tested positive for diabetes.
A couple of years ago, Danish researchers showed that Inuits have an 80 percent change of developing Type-2 diabetes during their lifetime.
This is down to a genetic reality that the sugar they get via their diets is not stored in their muscles, but in their bloodstream instead.
The problem in Greenland is further compounded by the face that people living in remote areas don’t have access to doctors and nurses.
“Our health sector is flexible and small, but a diabetes epidemic is a super tanker,” said Michael Lynge Pedersen, a researcher from the University of Greenland, who has been working to help the island handle diabetes since 2008.
“Greenland is a massive country with a small, sparse population. Some places don’t have a doctor, and others have no nurse. And in smaller towns health workers have a relatively short education. Geography is a fundamental challenge.”