The Life: The irony of serving up a very large cream cake at the end of a meeting to discuss diabetes and obesity seemed to be lost on the crowd of Novo Nordisk executives gathered to address the disease in the region.
Diabetes forum: how to hunt a 'silent killer'
The irony of serving up a very large cream cake at the end of a meeting to discuss diabetes and obesity seemed to be lost on the crowd of Novo Nordisk executives gathered at a round-table forum to address the disease in the region.
But to be fair, the assembled all looked pretty trim and the company was celebrating the 90th anniversary of its creation in the presence of Prince Joachim of Denmark, patron of the Danish Diabetes Association. There was also a large platter of fruit for the more calorie-conscious.
The Danish founders of Novo Nordisk began making insulin, which is used to treat diabetes, in 1923. Today, the drug remains the company's main product. Given that six of the world's top 10 countries for the prevalence of diabetes are in the Middle East and North Africa (Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) it is not surprising that Novo Nordisk considers the region important for sales growth.
Medical practitioners have been aware of the existence of diabetes since 1550BC in Egypt. While it was once rare, its prevalence has exploded and now affects 220 million people globally.
In 2011, 32.8 million people - or 11 per cent of the population - in the region suffered from the disease, according to the International Diabetes Foundation. That number is expected to almost double to 60 million in less than 20 years. In the UAE, 20 per cent of the population has diabetes. This is mainly because of smoking, a bad diet and a lack of exercise.
As if that is not bad enough, the "most scary figure" is that the disease is undiagnosed in 35 per cent of those who have it, according to Mohamed Farouk, the UAE country manager for Novo Nordisk. "It is a silent killer."
Undiagnosed diabetes is very dangerous because it can lead to complications such as heart disease, kidney disease, blindness and nerve disorders - especially affecting the feet - that can result in the need for amputation.
As a company with shareholders, Novo Nordisk obviously seeks to turn a profit. But it also rates its social performance as well as its financial performance, and engages in a number of initiatives mainly to raise awareness about the disease.
In October 2011, Novo Nordisk teamed up with Zayed University and Denmark's Aarhus University to educate 150 doctors in the UAE about diabetes.
In 2010, it also offered diabetes tests to people in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. A total of 2,500 people were screened.
The company also co-sponsored the Mena Diabetes Leadership Forum, which brought speakers including Frederick, Crown Prince of Denmark, the former US president Bill Clinton and UAE ministers to Dubai in December 2010.
This past November, the company sponsored a walk for schoolchildren and provided them with advice on avoiding fast food and increasing the amount of exercise they do.
"I am sure these children will become ambassadors for the cause," Mr Farouk said. The company has also been in talks with the government about devising national guidelines on how to prevent and treat diabetes. "Any event [in the UAE] concerning diabetes and we are there," he added.
If diagnosed and treated, people with diabetes can lead long and healthy lives. But that is not always the case. Working in the field, Mr Farouk has seen this first-hand.
"During our awareness days, we see a lot of patients handicapped and in wheelchairs and they are always asking about what is new for medication and you see the burden of diabetes on their face and their suffering," he said. "I hope that people will deal with their lifestyle here in the UAE with more physical activity and to have a lot of care about their body weight because obesity is a big trigger for diabetes."