Graphic: Lower income = higher diabetes risk
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Think about this: More than 200,000 West Virginians have contracted a disease that kills people. About 69,000 of them don't know they have it.
It is spreading fast. Another 125,000 West Virginians already have symptoms, the federal Centers for Disease Control says.
This disease causes heart attacks and leads to strokes, blindness, arm and leg amputations, nerve damage, kidney failure, liver failure. It kills people early. It's starting to attack children. About 25 percent of 11-year olds have high blood pressure and cholesterol and are obese.
Obesity is driving this disease. In 2007, 2,459 West Virginians died from it and its complications, according to state records.
All this is true. "The lack of public concern is staggering," said Gina Wood, manager of the state's Diabetes Prevention and Control Program.
"There is absolutely reason to be alarmed," she said. "Our health care system is not going to be able to handle all these folks."
If this was bird flu, killing two thousand people a year, wouldn't state government blanket the airwaves with ads that tell people how they can prevent it and control it? Wouldn't they set up a website that tells citizens where they can get help? Wouldn't we plaster the state with billboards and posters in store windows, telling people how to prevent it?
One in six West Virginians is now diabetic, according to the 2011 Gallup Healthways poll. In 2010, the CDC estimated it was one in eight.
Uncontrolled, diabetes kills people slowly and expensively, attacking most of their organs, shutting them down. Many West Virginians don't know this is an epidemic. They don't know it can be prevented.
"Type 2 diabetes is exploding right in front of us, yet people act like nothing unusual is going on. It's bizarre," said Parkersburg native Dr. Frank Schwartz, who directs Ohio University's diabetes program.
Because it's not a sudden epidemic like bird flu, it doesn't make headlines. "We've gotten so used to diabetes, we don't take it seriously anymore," Schwartz said.
West Virginia leads the nation in diabetes, according to the 2011 Gallup Healthways ranking. "This is a genuine epidemic," said Evan Jenkins, director of the West Virginia State Medical Association. "It affects a quarter million West Virginians."
Of those, nine out of 10 have type 2 diabetes, the kind that can be prevented and controlled with exercise and weight loss. Type two starts inside a person's body years before symptoms appear: constant thirst, blurry vision, frequent urination, sweating, unexplained weight loss.
Overweight people can cut their risk in half if they lose 7 percent of their weight and are physically active for just a half hour three times a week, solid research shows.
"We've got to let people know that," said Beckley pharmacist Arnie Vaughn, past president of the state diabetes educators association. "The number of type 2 diabetics is growing beyond anything we can possibly affect if we don't get ahead of this problem."
We can prevent this
"The first thing we teach in diabetes class is, you can get your blood sugar down to normal level, no matter who else in your family had it," said Pat White, director of Charleston's West Virginia Health Right. "It's up to you. We'll show you how. Exercise and diet."
Health Right serves 8,500 diabetics and has a proven track record of lowering blood sugar. People who live in the Charleston area have a choice of about six programs. But on a county-by-county map, it is clear that rural counties have the highest diabetes rates and fewer services.
Where are the West Virginia programs to help them? Nobody really knows. Nobody is keeping track.