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By: Michael H. Cottman,

Most black Americans know someone who has diabetes.

It may affect a family member, a friend, a co-worker or a next-door neighbor, but diabetes is a well-known – and sometimes deadly – illness within the African-American community.

Even President Barack Obama probably knows at least one black person who has the disease. And last week, Obama spoke about the serious challenges facing minorities after he signed a proclamation recognizing November as National Diabetes Month.

“African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, as well as the elderly, are at greater risk of developing diabetes over their lifetimes,” Obama said in a statement. “As a nation, we must ensure that all Americans know the warning signs of this disease, and if diagnosed, have access to affordable, quality medical care to help control it.”

Black women are particularly vulnerable to diabetes, while elderly black folks still refer to the disease simply as “sugar.”

Today, according to health care officials, diabetes is one of the most serious health challenges facing African-Americans, and the statistics are staggering: 

– More than two million African-Americans are living with diabetes. The actual number of African-Americans who have diabetes is probably more than twice the number diagnosed because previous research indicates that for every African-American diagnosed with diabetes, there is at least one undiagnosed case.

– For every white American who gets diabetes, 1.6 African-Americans get diabetes.

– One in four black women 55 years of age or older has diabetes. 

– Twenty-five percent of blacks between the ages of 65 and 74 have diabetes.

– African-Americans with diabetes are more likely to develop diabetes complications and experience greater disability from the complications than white Americans with diabetes.

To address this growing health crisis, the American Diabetes Association created a targeted approach called African-American Initiatives.

The initiative is designed to increase awareness of the rates of diabetes among African-Americans, provide information about the seriousness of diabetes and its complications, teach the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices and educate those with or at risk for developing diabetes about prevention, treatment, and management, according to the association’s Web site.

Diabetes is particularly common among middle-aged and older African-American adults, according to health officials. Death rates for people with diabetes are 27 percent higher for blacks compared with whites.

“Unfortunately, what we don’t know right now is why our community is such a primary target,” Dr. James R. Gavin III, MD, chair of the American Diabetes Association’s African-American Program, said in a statement. “By keeping fit, eating right and getting regular exercise, we can decrease our risk for diabetes quite substantially.”

Meanwhile, Obama said his administration will continue to support studies on diabetes, which is currently the fourth-leading cause of death by disease among African-Americans and is the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure and amputation.

“While diabetes is a complex and challenging disease, dedicated researchers continue to make important discoveries,” Obama said.

“This month,” Obama said, “we honor those who have made these successes possible, support those who are battling diabetes and re-dedicate ourselves to sustaining federal investments in research and education programs that improve the prevention and treatment of this disease.”

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