Back in SA to make a difference

Posted on 19 November 2019

Dr Essop Solomon at Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg has spent the past 12 years in Saudi Arabia, working as a diabetologist in a country with one of the highest incidences of diabetes in the world. Now he’s back, armed with insight into the latest management strategies.

Over 3.5 million South Africans have diabetes, according to the International Diabetes Federation. Up to another 2 million are living with the disease while undiagnosed, and global estimates show that diagnoses are rising rapidly in middle- and low-income countries.

Now, a local doctor, who has spent the past decade overseas, refining his understanding how to manage and treat those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, has returned to serve the Pietermaritzburg community.

Dr Essop Solomon qualified as a medical doctor in 1975, and has been practicing as a specialist physician since 1985. He operated in private practice, with regular part-time stints at local public hospitals, including Grey Hospital and Edendale Hospital. In 2005, he headed to Saudi Arabia with the intention of enjoying a short break, he says. It was there, at Saad Specialist Hospital in Al Khobar, that his interest in diabetes took hold.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that only six countries have a higher incidence rate of diabetes than Saudi Arabia: 7 million people are estimated to be diabetic, while another 3 million are believed to have pre-diabetes.

“Across all age groups, about a quarter of the Saudi Arabian population have diabetes,” explains Dr Solomon. “That prevalence goes up to 50% over the age of 50. So, as I was working in a diabetes clinic in a private hospital, I was exposed to a large volume of patients, and I was able to treat them using the latest emerging technology and techniques.”

Dr Solomon enjoyed the experience so much that he stayed for 12 years.

Now, he’s back in South Africa, with a practice at Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg. “Statistics show that the rate of diabetes in this country is rising rapidly, and we need to address this – why is it happening? What can we change?”

Africa has seen a greater rise in the number of new diabetes cases within the past three decades than any other region worldwide. This is according to a recent study conducted by experts in the Non-Communicable Diseases Research Unit based at Tygerberg Hospital.

And within the continent, Egypt and South Africa have been the primary drivers of the epidemic.

The study, which is based on 30 years’ historical data from more than 1.2 million people‚ showed a direct link between BMI and diabetes rates in both men and women. Almost half of local men and women are classified as obese, states the National Department of Health.

In Saudi Arabia, Dr Solomon worked as a diabetologist. Here, he prefers to be known as a specialist physician with an interest in diabetes. “My main focus is prevention,” he says. “This involves  motivating patients to make significant changes to their lifestyle.”

Unfortunately, he says, patients are referred to diabetes specialists only once their condition has become severe. “If you have been diabetic or pre-diabetic for a long time, your blood sugar can be difficult to control. In fact, in most cases, if you have diabetes but have not been diagnosed for over five years, we cannot reverse the condition.”

Within those five years, however, there is a lot that doctors can do. “If you commit to drastic lifestyle changes – such as adopting a healthier diet, and exercising more regularly – you can cure yourself of diabetes. The challenge is being able to help those patients when there is still time for those changes to take effect.”

Early diagnosis is key, he says. “Changing behaviour is not easy,” he says, “especially if that behaviour is part of a pattern that has developed over decades. But it can be done – and our role is to show our patients that it must be done.”

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