Kyuri Lee is currently a senior majoring in Human Biology, Health, and Society and minoring in Global Health at Cornell University.
In my recent work as an intern at Arogya World, I’ve been studying the alarming numbers and facts about NCDs worldwide and more specifically for India. Now I want to bring it closer to home and explore the issue in South Korea, my home country.
Diabetes is not as prevalent in South Korea as it is in India. In fact, I don’t think anyone who has visited South Korea would think that diabetes exists. TraditionalKorean meals are very well-balanced, and social norms and the media promote a healthy weight. On the streets, I haven’t noticed an obesity problem, and a study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development agrees that the obesity rate in South Korea is one of the lowest in the world at 3.8 percent.
Yet according to the Korea Diabetes Association, 1 out of 10 adults over age 30 and about 22.7% adults over age 65 have diabetes, and recent data from 2010 show that there are a total of 3.2 million Koreans living with diabetes. A study published in The Korean Diabetes Journal says that the main causes of diabetes are smoking and genetics, and claims that smoking increases the risk for diabetes by 14%, a figure I find alarming. Over the years, I’ve seen the increasing popularity of smoking among teens and college students just from personal encounters and observation. However, a study also showed that in general, the smoking rate among South Korean men increased from 40.9 percent in 2008 to 43.1 percent in 2009. And not only is smoking increasing, but what’s more distressing is that smoking has become much more accepted among both students and parents. It’s important to note that not only is smoking a risk factor for diabetes, but smokers who already have diabetes experience far worse consequences: smokers with diabetes are three times more likely to die of cardiovascular complications than diabetic non-smokers.
We know that genetics and diet are two of the main causes for the rising number of people with diabetes in India. Because of their diet and genetic make-up, Indians are more susceptible to developing type II diabetes, especially at a younger age. Despite the differences in the main causes for diabetes in these two countries, the key to disease prevention is the same for both: helping people adopt healthier lifestyles. For example, in Korea, people need to be educated that smoking increases their risk of acquiring diabetes. People often associate smoking with only cancer, and thus, it’s important that the public is more informed of the many dangers of smoking, including diabetes. I believe that education and awareness can go a long way to improving health outcomes.
As an undergraduate following the medical track, I had always believed that a doctor is the only effective way to reduce illness, but I now realize that public health interventions can have incredible outcomes. Arogya World has proven to me just that. We recently announced how we enrolled one million people in a diabetes prevention mHealth initiative in India. Arogya World accomplished this by collaborating with Nokia to send out alerts through mobile phones about diabetes and its prevention through lifestyle changes. We are now awaiting effectiveness results. During my internship, I’ve also been able to attend many panels on global health and disease prevention this semester, and I’ve realized the power of education to make life-changing differences in vulnerable communities.