By the time Timothy Ntambalika of Traditional Authority (T/A) Nchilamwera in Thyolo went to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in October 1986 after a long illness, damage had already been done to his body.
Ntambalika says his blood had shot the highest sugar (glucose) level of 460mg/dl. In medical terms, this is critical diabetic condition.
According to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists post on www.care.net, normal glucose level in a human being before and after eating is between 70mg/dl and 180mg/dl.
“It was out of ignorance. I never thought that something critical was happening in my body. I was feeling headache and fever frequently, and thought it was malaria,” says Ntambalika, who has been diabetic for 27 years now.
There are two types of diabetes. Type One diabetes has health complications that result from failure of the body to produce insulin while Type Two is when the body does not recognise produced insulin to trigger conversion of food into energy.
The dangerous part of the disease, according to Moffat Nyirenda, a professor of research at College of Medicine (CoM) and associate director of Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome (MLW) Trust, is that the disease has no specific signs.
He says the signs and symptoms that diabetic patients experience are usually those associated with other common health disorders such as blurred vision, weakness and fatigue, increased hunger, weight loss, increased thirst and frequent urinating.
“However, there are other signs and symptoms which are known as pre-diabetes signs. These are dry, itchy, or scaly skin, sores that do not heal, tingling or numbness and irritability,” says Nyirenda.
During a recent public debate organised by MLW, Mercy Balala of Chitawira Township in Blantyre said she spent three years taking pain killers and herbs trying to get cured of the frequent dizziness, fatigue and night sweating.
“It was a painful experience to spend money seeking traditional medication and other artificial drugs in private hospitals not knowing it was a bigger problem. I lost a lot since I was not productive because of my health,” she says.
Nyirenda says the dangerous part with the problem is that people take the symptoms lightly, thinking they are minor problems which they can solve, thereby worsening the disease.
He adds that early diagnosis can help solve the problem and that by observing hospital prescription and advice, one can be rescued from being diabetic.
The debate exposed that diabetic people are twice or more times likely to develop heart disease or stroke. Diabetes is also the leading cause of new blindness among adults between 20 and 74 years. It was also revealed that about 60-70 percent of the people with diabetes have mild to severe nerve damage. The condition is also listed among diseases that cause many deaths in the world.
Local research conducted by CoM and World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that Malawi has over one million diabetic people, most of whom do not know their condition.
Ophthalmologist and researcher at MLW Trust Clinical Research Programme, Dr. Philip Burgess, who was also one of the panellists at the debate, says out of every 20 people who visit QECH in Blantyre for diagnosis every day, five are found diabetic.
“There are many people who are diabetic, but they don’t know. This is worrisome and there is need to sensitise people to the need to go for diabetes tests,” says Burgess.
However, he says diabetes has no cure, only drugs that help to regulate blood sugar in the body.
“Once found diabetic, the person is supposed to take the drugs everyday till the last breath,” says Burgess, adding that any person—rich or poor, slim or fat—can be diabetic.
Ntambalika says since he started the treatment, he is living happily and performs all his duties effectively.
“I was diagnosed diabetic in 1986 and since then I have been taking diabetes drugs and I am healthy and strong. I used to take tablets, but now I use insulin injections,” says Ntambalika.
It is after this successful living and experience that Ntambalika decided to form the Diabetes Association of Malawi to sensitise people to the non-communicable disease and lobby for availability of drugs.
“Civic education is a challenge in Malawi. I know the challenges I went through before being diagnosed diabetic and the challenges the disease pose to every human being; particularly that one can live with the problem for years without knowing it,” says Ntambalika.
Ntambalika says people can live with the condition for decades provided they take prescribed drugs and live a healthy lifestyle.