November is Diabetes Awareness Month and I would like to raise awareness because I am one of 26 million Americans afflicted by the disease.
In 1999, I was diagnosed with diabetes as I was preparing to compete in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. No book was given to me on how to deal with blurred vision and debilitating fatigue, but I managed to overcome these obstacles to swim.
Today, scientists and researchers have made so much progress in understanding this disease. Now we can envision a world where there are not only better ways to treat diabetes but also ways to cure and even prevent it.
The Special Diabetes Program is a major reason for the achievements that have occurred. Since 1997, the SDP — which is directed by the National Institutes of Health — has been an essential source of the funds that have made large-scale, longterm research projects possible. But the future progress can be slowed to a crawl, or stopped altogether, if Congress does not act this year to extend the life of the program.
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The SDP has always been renewed well in advance of its expiration to eliminate funding uncertainty that could cause promising research to be shut down. Unless Congress acts this year, that is what will happen. In both human and economic terms, re-authorizing the SDP is the right and the smart thing to do.
Diabetes imposes huge direct costs on our society as well as indirect costs from the health complications it causes. It is the leading cause of kidney failure, blindness in working age adults and amputations unrelated to injuries. It’s a major risk factor for heart attack and strokes and a contributor to more than 230,000 deaths a year.
The United States spent $174 billion on diabetes in 2007; $1 out of every $10 spent on health care goes for diabetes and its complications; and more than one-quarter of Medicare recipients have diabetes and account for about onethird of Medicare spending. These numbers won’t decline unless we do something about them.
For $150 million — just one tenth of 1 percent of the annual cost of treating this disease —the SDP is helping to find ways to treat it, cure it or prevent it. One way is through the creation of an artificial pancreas, a device whose development has been accelerated by the SDP. According to a recent study, an artificial pancreas, which would help people manage their blood sugar levels and reduce medical complications, would save Medicare almost $2 billion over 25 years.
Not long ago, the National Institutes of Health issued a report reciting the numerous achievements of the SDP and highlighting the advances that were on the horizon in the years to come.
“The potential payoff is only beginning to be realized,” the report said. “These efforts have set the stage for future research progress that is expected to be fully realized in the years to come. This important line of research could not be taken at all, or at least not at an unprecedented scale, without the financial aid and organizational resources of the SDP.”
Congress has a choice to make in the next few months. It can push forward and build on the SDP’s momentum, helping bring to fruition the years of hard work and dedication that make an end to this disease foreseeable. Or it can ease back and stop before the goal is reached.
As Americans, we are proud of our country because we work hard to be the best in the world. On Nov. 14, World Diabetes Day, let’s show the world that Americans are moving toward a cure to diabetes. I urge Congress to fund the SDP so we can stop diabetes and save lives.
Gary Hall Jr. competed for the United States in the Olympic Games of 1996, 2000 and 2004 and has won 10 medals. He lives in Santa Barbara County.