Measuring the Rising Risks of Obesity and Diabetes in Africa

While Africa’s high infectious disease burden has drawn the most attention from the international public health community, the continent is also facing rising impacts from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including diabetes. Similarly, crises of food insecurity in the region have obscured the risks of obesity accompanying Africa’s increasing economic growth and urbanization. 

This is changing, however, with international organizations as well as national governments coming together in recent years to bring a new focus to these related issues. Public health researchers at Imperial College London have provided critical support for these efforts with the first detailed analysis of obesity and diabetes in Africa.

The findings could help inform health interventions throughout the continent. Public health students and professionals looking to make this kind of international impact in Africa or anywhere in the world can learn alongside Imperial’s world-class faculty through the online Global Master of Public Health degree. 

In 2016, the World Diabetes Foundation (WDF), the East African Diabetes Study Group (EADSG), and the Tanzanian Ministry of Health convened an international NCD Symposium in Dar Es Salaam. The event brought together government Ministries of Health from 17 countries, the World Health Organization (WHO), the African Union, and the Global NCD Alliance to share experiences and lessons learned about this rising public health threat.

The culmination of the event was the signing of the 2016 Dar Es Salaam Call to Action on Diabetes and Other Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), which committed countries across the continent to a number of steps including the development national NCD strategies and action plans based on available data. 

Imperial College researchers led a team to provide the robust datasets needed to inform these policies working as part of the NCD Risk Factor Collaboration – Africa Working Group,. They pooled data from population studies from 1980 to 2014 to estimate trends in mean body mass index (BMI) and diabetes prevalence in 53 countries across all five regions (central, eastern, northern, southern, and western) of Africa. 

The result of this analysis confirmed the urgency of addressing the linked challenges of obesity and diabetes:

  • From 1980 to 2014, mean BMI increased from 21 to 23 kg/m2 in men, and from 21.9 to 24.9 kg/m2 in women, increasing over time across all regions 
  • Diabetes prevalence more than doubled, rising from 3.4% to 8.5% in men, and from 4.1% to 8.9% in women 
  • These increases in obesity and diabetes were associated with increases in gross domestic product, indicating these trends could worsen with continuing economic growth

In their conclusions, the study’s authors emphasized the importance of developing better monitoring data as African countries ramp up their efforts to address diabetes. According to co-author Dr. James Bentham of Imperial College, “Our findings are based on the largest dataset ever collected describing these conditions in Africa. As the continent experiences higher burdens of obesity and diabetes, we also need to use better data to track the performance of countries in preventing these conditions.”

The study’s co-lead authors were Dr. Bentham and Dr. Majid Ezzati of Imperial College London, in collaboration with academics from the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC). They worked with the wider NCD Risk Factor Collaboration, a global network of public health scientists studying risk factors for non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. 

The work was funded by the UK’s Wellcome Trust as well as SAMRC, proving further that achieving global impacts often requires global collaboration. Public health students and professionals looking to work on this type of difference-making research about issues everywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world, can do so with Imperial College’s 100% online Global Master of Public Health degree. 



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