More than 1,000 people marched to the Kompong Thom provincial referral hospital on Saturday to mark World Diabetes Day and raise awareness of the chronic disease, which affects 3 percent of Cambodians and is increasing due to changing diets.

Saturday’s event was organized by Mopotsyo, a local NGO that focuses on diabetes, and the majority of the participants were diabetics, who require lifelong treatment for high blood sugar.

The first national survey on diabetes was conducted in 2010, with a second one planned for 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, adding that the number of sufferers in Cambodia is expected to increase due to a change in diet and people’s increasingly unhealthy lifestyles.

Dr. Khim Sam Ath, technical officer for non-communicable disease at WHO, said that there are four main risk factors for diabetes: an unhealthy diet, the consumption of alcohol, nicotine use and a lack of physical exercise.

Changing lifestyles among the growing middle classes is a major factor in the rise of the disease’s prevalence as more people are able to afford junk food, but the high proportion of white milled rice in Cambodians’ regular diets is also a problem due to its high glycemic load.

“If you look at the people today in Cambodia, more people are eating unhealthy food like fast food. And there are fewer bicycles and more cars, for example. We expect that the number of people living with chronic diseases like diabetes will increase for these reasons,” Dr. Sam Ath said.

Maurits van Pelt, director of Mopotsyo, said he too expected an increase of diabetes patients.

“I am sure the number will go up in Cambodia and I think it already went up since the last survey,” Mr. van Pelt said.

By the end of 2011, 8,310 patients were registered with Mopotsyo. By the end 2012, the number had increased to 12,500, according to the organization’s annual report.

Mopotsyo, Mr. van Pelt said, is currently working with 130 peer educators who suffer from diabetes and who have helped more than 7,000 patients across the country better manage their disease.

Medication, he said, costs about $6 per month, but is not necessarily the only option for diabetes patients.

“If you have diabetes and you have a very good lifestyle, your blood sugar goes down and the problem is not as severe anymore. We have taken random tests and found that if you have a very good lifestyle your blood sugar can be as low as when you take medication,” Mr. van Pelt said.

The peer educators currently cover just 10 percent of the country’s health centers, he said, adding that patients need more information about their disease and how to live with it.

“We want to cover more health centers, but we also depend on the government to adopt this as a national strategy,” he said.

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