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Southern Cross Medical Library

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Diabetes mellitus in New Zealand

Over 240 000 New Zealanders have been diagnosed with diabetes (diabetes mellitus).  It is estimated that another 100,000 have diabetes that has not been diagnosed.  Symptoms can include excessive urination and thirst, excessive eating or hunger, fatigue and nausea. Treatment aims to maintain healthy blood glucose levels and to prevent serious health complications.
In New Zealand Type 2 diabetes is increasing rapidly and in some regions is considered to have reached epidemic proportions.   Maori and Pacific Island New Zealanders are more than three times more likely to develop diabetes than most other New Zealanders. Rates of diabetes are also high among Asian New Zealanders. Other risk factors for developing diabetes include: obesity; family history; high blood pressure and cholesterol levels; little or no exercise; pregnancy; women who have had a large baby (>4000g birth weight) and/or a history of gestational diabetes; and being over 40 years of age.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder, which means a problem with the process by which food is digested and used as energy by the body.  It is a chronic (long-term) condition characterised by high levels of glucose in the blood (hyperglycaemia).  If not treated it can cause or contribute to a range of other health conditions such as coronary heart disease, kidney damage, stroke, circulatory problems, damaged vision, miscarriage, cellulitis, vaginal thrush and oral thrush
During digestion most foods are converted into a sugar called glucose.  Glucose is a simple sugar that is the main fuel source for the body.  Once food has been converted into glucose, it moves into the bloodstream where it is circulated around the body.  It then passes into the body's cells to be used as energy. 
For glucose to pass from the bloodstream into the cells, insulin is required.  Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas - a large gland that sits behind the stomach.  Specialised cells in the pancreas, called beta cells, automatically produce the correct amounts of insulin to move the glucose into the cells. Insulin production rises and falls throughout the day in response to the body's needs.  However, in people with diabetes there is a problem with the production of insulin or with the body's ability to use the insulin. 
There are three main types of diabetes - Type 1, Type 2 and gestational – typically associated with different circumstances.
Type 1 diabetes is a life-long variation of the disease that typically takes hold in childhood or adolescence, and is the result of the body’s immune system destroying the pancreas where insulin is made.  Symptoms of Type 1 diabetes can appear suddenly. The condition can cause serious health complications over time but can be managed with insulin replacement therapy and lifestyle changes.
Type 2 diabetes is a life-long variation of the disease often associated with being overweight, and is the result of the body not producing enough insulin and/or being unable to respond to insulin. Symptoms of Type 2 diabetes develop gradually. The condition can cause serious health complications over time but can be managed with lifestyle changes and medication.
Gestational diabetes is a variation of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy, and is the result of the mother not being able to produce enough insulin.  Gestational diabetes may not present obvious symptoms but may be diagnosed during routine pregnancy screening. The condition can adversely affect the pregnancy and health of the baby but can be managed with diet modification and exercise and, if necessary, medication.  
Diabetes can also occur as the result of:
  • Medications - eg: prednisone (a steroid medication) and some diuretics (water tablets), which can increase the chances of developing diabetes by increasing insulin resistance.
  • Certain medical conditions - eg: diseases of the pancreas (eg: chronic pancreatitis) and some disorders of the hormone-producing endocrine glands (eg: Cushings' syndrome).
  • Trauma or surgery - eg: injury to the pancreas or surgical removal of the pancreas.
  • Some genetic disorders eg: Down's syndrome, Turner's syndrome and some muscular dystrophies.

Further support and information

It is important for people with diabetes to have broad support from areas such as family, partners, healthcare professionals and diabetes support groups.  Information and diabetic supplies can be obtained from Diabetes New Zealand - a nationwide, non-governmental, non-profit, membership organisation. 
Diabetes New Zealand
Freephone: 0800 DIABETES (0800 342 238) for educational resources and diabetes products.
Freephone 0800 369 636 for membership inquiries
A support and information service aimed at young New Zealanders is:
Diabetes Youth
Last Reviewed - November 2016 


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