Diabetes rates in Central Australia among the highest in the world, new research shows

Two young women in an exercise class in central Australia. One holds purple hand weights, the other a resistance band.

Selina and Rhonda Bob are waiting for a lifesaving phone call — one that could be years away.

Their kidneys are failing, and they hope they won’t have to wait too long on the organ transplant list.

“I was feeling sad when I heard the doctors say to me you’re going to be in renal [failure] soon. I thought, ‘you must be lying’,” Selina said.

Every week, the sisters are bound to a chair for 16 hours as their blood is pumped out of their bodies and filtered through a dialysis machine.

The pair were both diagnosed with diabetes – a disease that can damage the kidneys – at a staggeringly young age.

And in this isolated pocket of the world, these sisters are not alone in their prognosis.

Researchers have found that rates of diabetes in Central Australia are some of the highest ever reported globally. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

New research has found that rates of diabetes in Central Australia are among the highest ever seen worldwide – and they are getting worse, with more people diagnosed every year at far younger ages than ever seen before.

The study, published in the open access medical journal BMJ Open, analyzed seven years’ worth of health data from more than 21,000 Aboriginal people from 51 remote communities across the Northern Territory.

The lead author is Matthew Hare, an endocrinologist at the Royal Darwin Hospital and senior research officer at the Menzies School of Health Research.

He said the new research showed a growing diabetes epidemic in remote NT communities, which was “unprecedented in terms of prevalence”.

“Rates of diabetes in these remote communities are increasing such that now 29 percent of adults in remote Aboriginal communities are living with diabetes, and this is largely type 2 diabetes,” Dr Hare said.

“The findings of our research were particularly concerning for the Central Australian region where communities are having diabetes prevalence rates up to 40 percent of adults.”

Dr Hare said the last time this type of research was conducted was in 2012, and things had gotten much worse since then.

A young doctor stands in an office leaning against a table.
Dr Matthew Hare says the epidemic is strongly related to the impacts of colonisation.(ABC News: Tully Hemsley)

Diabetes no longer a disease of the elderly

Up until now, diabetes was thought to be a disease that mainly affected older people, but Dr. Hare said type 2 diabetes was being seen increasingly in children.

“We have seen cases diagnosed as young as age four,” Dr. Hare said.

“And that’s type 2 diabetes, which we previously thought was a condition mostly seen in adults.

“We are seeing the average age of diagnosis of type 2 diabetes being in the mid-30s, which compared to national data is decades younger.

“When you look at the Australian population, nationally, most people getting diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are in their 60s or 70s.”

Co-author Dr Amy Rosser, a senior remote medical practitioner in a desert community about 300km from Alice Springs, said Aboriginal people aged 20-39 years in remote parts of the NT were 26 times more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than people of the same age in the national Australian population.

Epidemic related to impacts of colonisation

Dr Hare said there were numerous drivers behind the growing epidemic, including the intergenerational effects of diabetes in pregnancy and the social and economic disparities still experienced by many people in remote communities today.

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