Diabetes Dangers and Cultural Misconceptions

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As type 1 diabetics, we are often frustrated by the seemingly constant stereotypes and incorrect assumptions that exist about diabetes. We've all heard the tired old comments such as “My grandma/grandpa has diabetes so I know exactly how you feel!”, or “Doesn't diabetes mean you can’t eat sugar?”, or even worse “So diabetes means you have to test your blood pressure?” While we know some of this information may be based in certain experiences or knowledge, the reality is that many people are simply misinformed or don’t know where or how to find the correct information. Without that information, diabetes can continue to carry negative (and incorrect) stigmata.

We regularly deal with hearing these annoying statements and (hopefully) try to educate those around us when we hear stereotypes being perpetuated, but what if inaccurate information was embedded into the culture and heart of your community? Adejumo Hakeem and three other authors looked at the impact of religion and culture on diabetic control in Nigeria. The results that they found from their randomized sample are really interesting:

“We also observed that 74% of total Respondents are aware of Diabetes but about 31% of this figure (40% of Total Respondents) have inadequate or wrong ideas about D.M with ideologies reflected to their religious and cultural belief system!”

The results also noted the following:

  • 25% of Total respondents believe it’s an infection
  • 15% of Total Respondents believe it can be caused by witchcraft
  • 10% of total respondents believe it can come as a punishment from God

In an earlier interview with the Nigerian Online Diabetes Community, they told me that “Religion and culture are the bedrock of African civilization and as such are totally embedded in the belief systems of people. Most people, especially the uneducated, still believe hospitals to be a western influence, and they believe strongly in the efficacy of herbs in curing all forms of illnesses. This of course results in late presentation and earlier onset of complications.”

In my interview with Sana Ajmal she mentioned, in a similar vein, that people in Pakistan tend to believe in spiritual, psychological, herbal, etc. treatments rather than medical ones. She said, “Many people who are diagnosed with type1 (like children who are diagnosed) will tend not to come back to the [doctor] and will try his/her luck at one of these alternative medicines. Once my doctor told me about a 12 years old who was diagnosed with type 1 and was being fed with 40 pieces of ‘ladu’ (a traditional sweet) by a fake spiritual healer. He went into a ketoacidosis coma and was recovered with huge difficulty.” These tendencies towards non-medical treatments are obviously problematic.

Hakeem’s group research led them to conclude that religion and culture do definitely have an impact on diabetes in Nigeria. Based on the few other interviews I have conducted, it seems to be a reoccurring theme in some parts of the world that, for some reason, dangerous information is being perpetuated. This may be due to cultural or religious influences, but perhaps families do not know about or cannot afford the required medicine so therefore use spiritual or other methods as a last resort.

Hakeem notes that, “Through this research I have been able to see religion and culture as a great tool for diabetes awareness and care and utilizing both parameters will go a long way in diabetes care in Nigeria and Africa.” We can hope that continued education and special community efforts to educate religious and cultural institutions can lead to a more well-rounded understanding of type 1 diabetes so that people realize fully what it takes to treat the condition. Education can also help in terms of families understanding warning signs that should lead to earlier diagnosis.

Still, this does not combat the problem of access to insulin and diabetes supplies, which is a whole other issue. However, these areas of diabetes and misconceptions, social stigmata and cultural/religious influences are important to take note of when thinking about diabetes on a global level.

I look forward to hearing more about the research of Adejumo Hakeem and his colleagues and seeing reader comments about impacts that culture or social stereotypes may have on people with diabetes in their (or other) countries.