MEXICO CITY – Four of the six people who have died from coronavirus in Mexico to date have had diabetes, which raised alarm bells that a country with one of the world’s highest rates of the disease could be more susceptible than its relatively young average age suggests.
The World Health Organization has stated that people with diabetes and related health complications, along with the elderly, are most susceptible to severe cases of the highly contagious and sometimes fatal disease caused by the new corona virus.
Mexico has the fewest retired citizens among the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But it has the highest rate of obesity in the United States, and related diseases like type 2 diabetes are common.
Mexico had 475 confirmed cases of COVID-19 – the disease caused by the virus – and six deaths by Thursday. Four of the deceased had diabetes and two had high blood pressure – both of which can make the disease worse. A seventh Mexican who died in Peru also had diabetes. While four of the victims were over 60 years old, the other two were 55 and 41 years old.
“Corona virus is not that deadly, except for people with health problems that complicate it,” said Dr. Abelardo Avila, a researcher at the Salvador Zubiran National Institute for Medical Sciences and Nutrition. “Unfortunately, that’s the case with many millions of Mexicans.”
When details of coronavirus deaths in Mexico became known, even health officials who previously urged the population to remain calm recognized the extent of the problem the country is facing.
“Overweight people, particularly morbidly overweight ones, are the most at risk of developing complications from coronavirus infection,” said Ricardo Cortes, a Mexican health official.
The consumption of processed food takes its toll
In Mexico, an initially much applauded tax on sugary drinks has not yet shown any significant results, efforts to introduce food labeling have stalled, and magazines such as the Diabetes Hoy line have been published.
Type 2 diabetes, by far the most common form of the disease, occurs when the body becomes insulin resistant or underproduces. There is a direct correlation between condition and obesity and poor nutrition, with over 80 percent of diabetes cases being related to obesity. And government data show that chronic metabolic disease also occurs frequently in families.
Over time, diabetes can damage the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys, and nerves. And the rates have increased significantly in recent years.
In Mexico, 10.3 percent of the population aged 20 years and older – 8.6 million people – suffer from diabetes, according to the government in 2018, compared to 9.2 percent six years ago.
After heart disease, diabetes is the leading cause of death in Mexico.
Hypertension or high blood pressure is even more common and affects 18.4 percent of the population aged 20 years and over – 15.2 million people – compared to 16.6 percent six years ago.
Obesity reached epidemic proportions in Mexico after it joined a free trade agreement with the United States in the early 1990s and processed foods became more readily available, as several studies have shown.
Mexico is now the largest consumer of ultra-processed foods in Latin America and the fourth largest in the world. According to government data, 75.2 percent of the population aged 20 and over are either overweight or obese, compared to 71.3 percent six years ago.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic will make the problem even bigger,” said Dr. Jose Luis Mora, who specializes in heart disease and microbiology at the country’s social security institute.
“The government tells us that we shouldn’t be worried, but we don’t see any quick action to fight the pandemic,” Mora said, adding that the prevalence of people with underlying health conditions was not taken into account in government plans.
Unlike regional counterparts, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has ordered no closure or other drastic measures to control the spread of the corona virus, fearing that the country’s already collapsing economy will suffer an even bigger blow.
Researcher Avila said Mexico should have acted firmer years ago to encourage its population to change their diet. Recently, companies have dropped government food health initiatives from the courts.
“Mexicans are dying now because of their bad eating habits,” said Avila. “Mexico has to pay the price for not doing anything significant before. It should have been a long time ago.”