x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Journey to a cure for diabetes begins with these steps

We do not need to be superstars like Nick Jonas to become ambassadors for diabetes awareness. Ken Rodenheiser taught me that ordinary people can produce extraordinary change.

The Jonas Brothers induced a lot of star-struck squeals from thousands of tweens at last weekend's concert on Yas Island. (Just for the record, I was only accompanying my eight-year-old brother to the event, who knows the trio from their Disney-fame days).

Midway through the show, Nick Jonas, the youngest of the brothers, began to perform a song on the piano while he described "the hardest day of his life". The 18-year-old wasn't talking about his first heartbreak or a rejection from college, but rather, about the day he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes just as he was reveling at hitting the milestone of turning 13. Since his diagnosis, Nick teamed up with five different charities dedicated to raising awareness about the disease, and has used his fame to serve as an ambassador for the cause that affects an estimated 230 million people around the world.

This past summer, I volunteered with Friends for Life, an annual conference for children with Type 1 diabetes, where children diagnosed, or who have family members affected by the disease, come together to attend educational sessions and bond with other kids who can understand what they are going through every single day: from counting carbohydrates to pricking themselves a couple of times a day to test their blood sugar, to injecting themselves with insulin to maintain their blood sugar levels. On the first day, diabetics were asked to wear a different-coloured wristband than the conference goers, specifically so that we could quickly spot children who were showing symptoms of "being low" because of their disease. Those with diabetes wore green wrist bands. The rest of us sported orange ones. I remember standing in that hallway during registration time overwhelmed with grief: there were so many green wristbands. Four of them were elementary-aged girls who I would look after for the next couple of days. One of them was my sister, who was diagnosed with diabetes when she was about their age as well. She has been living with the disease for 14 years now.

By the end of the conference, I was overwhelmed by a more positive emotion: hope, engendered by the resilience of the people I met. One of them was a fellow volunteer, Ken Rodenheiser, a college student who testified at the New Jersey State Legislature to help diabetic students have more freedom when it comes to testing their blood sugar in the classroom. His lobbying campaign came after one of his school teachers complained that his constant blood sugar testing was disrupting her class. Ken's testimony happened in 2008. The bill was finally passed earlier this year.

On Friday, I am returning to Yas Island to see another superstar: my sister, who is participating in the diabetes walkathon. According to the International Diabetes Federation, our country suffers from the highest prevalence of diabetes in the Middle East and North Africa Region and the second highest prevalence in the world, with one in five people affected. We follow Nauru, an island country whose life expectancy is 11 years less than ours and per capita income is 8 times less than ours.

On Friday, I am walking for the awareness that we urgently need to beat this disease. I am walking in the hope that my country will funnel a significant portion of its health budget to finding a cure so that my sister and the rest of those like her do not have insulin pumps or needles as their lifeline forever. While there is no evidence that Type 1 diabetes is preventable, the majority of Type 2 diabetes cases can be prevented, so it is imperative that we come together as a nation to make sure that we do not let our current lifestyles of excess burden us with a disease we have to live with forever.

Let this Friday be the day we respond to the call of the one in five Emiratis who need us to rally for their cause. We do not need to be superstars like Nick Jonas to become ambassadors for the cause. Ken Rodenheiser taught me that ordinary people can produce extraordinary change.

Let's help make that change come to the UAE. Because one in five Emiratis is not a statistic. One of them is my sister, too.

Tala al Ramahi is a former reporter for The National