Spend a few minutes reflecting on the problem of diabetes and other Non-Communicable Diseases, or NCDs. On our generation’s watch, these diseases have grown to represent one of the major health and development challenges of the century. Diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and chronic lung diseases kill 2 out of 3 people, and affect all countries, rich and poor. Of course, they impact the poorest in our communities the most. In cities in India like Chennai, 50 percent of adults are diabetic or pre-diabetic – and among 50-year olds that percentage increases to 75 percent. Just think about it: roughly 3 out of 4 people in their prime in India’s metro areas are either diabetic or prediabetic. No wonder India is considered the diabetes capital.
Another huge public health issue: Indians get diabetes in their 30s and 40s, with some 10 years earlier than Americans. And we know that India is a young country – two thirds of the country is under the age of 35. Knowing that huge numbers of people – working people at the prime of their productive years – will likely start getting diabetes in the near future, and knowing that diabetes worsens over time leading to heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, foot amputations and even blindness, Indian businesses are looking at more sick leave and absenteeism, reduced productivity, and increased healthcare costs. A healthy workforce means a better bottom line, more productivity, and greater competitive advantage. At the current rate, the competitiveness of Indian companies and of India on the global stage will be compromised. India’s public health burden is indeed staggering, worsened and strained by NCDs, at a time when the country is still reeling from malnutrition, childhood mortality, maternal mortality, infectious diseases including TB, malaria, HIV etc. Something must be done.
The good news is something can be done. The World Health Organization says 80 percent of heart disease, 80 percent of diabetes and 40 percent of cancer can be prevented with three basic lifestyle changes – eat right, exercise and avoid tobacco. Prevention through healthy living is at the core of what we do at Arogya World. I founded Arogya World in 2010 with the vision of using my science background and my global experiences to work with like-minded people and like-minded organizations to make a meaningful contribution to global health. While working in the pharmaceutical and global public affairs industries in the US, Korea, Hong Kong and the UK, I was exposed to the best and brightest in global health. I witnessed many waves of success in global health – in polio, HIV/AIDS, childhood vaccination and women’s health.
When we started Arogya World, we decided to devote the rest of our lives to the new challenge in global health – NCDs, the toughest yet, and one that demanded collaboration among the world’s best and most innovative minds, and indeed collaboration across all sectors of society. To date, we are energized by the progress we have made, and the potential for real impact.
We are now implementing a doorstep health model in India, taking prevention to people where they live and learn and work. Our interventions are thoughtfully designed and are gaining traction – our schools program has shown 15 percent improvement in awareness and behavior change in middle school children in urban and rural settings, and we are now taking this peer led education to more than 100,000 children all over the country. Our 1 million person mDiabetes text message program – a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment – demonstrated significant public health impact as shown in our Journal of Medical Internet Research paper published with Northwestern University experts. We believe our 6 months of twice a week messages in 12 Indian languages brought about 20 percent improved adoption of health behaviors. And we are rapidly scaling up that program. With 116 companies spanning 2.5 million employees in our Healthy Workplace program, our approach will we believe make a difference and advance workplace health. And we expect that MyThali, which teaches people what to eat and in what quantities at each meal, will be very helpful as we deal with the dual burden of malnutrition – hunger and stunting – as well as obesity and NCDs in India.
We Indian Americans are not immune. In fact, we have been very hard hit by NCDs – studies have shown that our risk for diabetes is four times greater when compared to that of our Caucasian counterparts. More research evidence on culturally appropriate interventions that can be effective in ethnic populations like ours is needed. That is why studies like our current mDiabetes effort that can help assess whether culturally adapted text messages can persuade South Asians living in the U.S. to adopt positive health behaviors are very important.
Consider spending a few minutes to sign up and help with our study – we are looking for 200 Indian Americans to volunteer. If you are of Indian origin and living in the United States, this also is a great opportunity for you and your family members – sign up for a proven text message-based diabetes prevention program that has already been shown to work in India. It is offered by Arogya World, and is free.
You will help yourself and your family learn about diabetes and how to prevent it, and you will also be contributing to research.
All you need to do is send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll walk you through next steps. And Indiaspora readers, keep track of us at www.arogyaworld.org and wish us the best as we strive to change the course of chronic disease for the next generation of Indians.
Nalini Saligram is the Founder and CEO of Arogya World. She is an Ashoka Fellow and the Co-Chair of the Taskforce on Women & NCDs. Under Nalini’s leadership, Arogya World designs and implements scalable, science-based diabetes prevention programs in Indian schools, workplaces, and the community. In addition to completing mDiabetes, the groundbreaking 1-million-person diabetes prevention program in India, Nalini and her team are working hard to get 100 companies in India to become Healthy Workplaces and help 1 million employees lead healthier lives. Nalini holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. She serves on the Dean’s Council at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and is a charter member of TiE Midwest. She is based in Chicago and Bangalore.