By Benjamin Bullard
The Cullman Times
It may have been the first of its kind, but Saturday’s Stride Walk for Diabetes at Cullman’s Heritage Park got a promising start in accomplishing its goal — bringing awareness of the diabetes epidemic to the fore front in a part of the country where it’s affecting people the most.
More than a hundred supporters donning bright blue shirts turned out for the walk, a show of support for local diabetics and their families.
Event organizer Gloria Williams — working with the Cullman Community Lions’ Club, a new co-ed organization sponsoring the walk — said she was encouraged by the participation, and stressed the difference local diabetes awareness can make in the lives of those who live with the disease, as well as those who don’t — or don’t yet.
“There are a lot of people here for our first time, but I wish we could fill the whole place. I believe we’ve got the people, in Cullman, to do it,” she said. “We want to really get the awareness out there, because diabetes is not far away from anybody. I heard someone say that diabetics are ‘chameleons’ — they’re among you, but you don’t know it. You can have it, at first, and not know it.”
Leading the walk was Grand Marshal Cody Bales and his yellow Lab, Nash — one of only three active diabetes service animals in North Alabama. Using his sensitive nose, Nash helps monitor Bales — a Cold Springs student and Type I diabetic — by sensing his blood sugar levels and giving a friendly bark anytime Cody needs attention.
“He goes through a lot of stuff, but you never hear him say a word,” said Williams. “Cody is a great story, because he’s had problems since the day he was born, and yet he just has such a great, kind heart.”
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Wallace State Community College pediatric nursing instructor Glynda Hardin said the disease isn’t the kind of chronic problem whose symptoms afford patients the luxury of neglecting. Rather, the constant vigilance in monitoring its symptoms demands bravery and patience from those who live with diabetes — especially children.
“I teach pediatrics, and diabetes is something that can very much involve children,” said Hardin. “They go through a lot, because it’s something that they live with. It isn’t a disease with symptoms that you can ignore.” Hardin, along with student representatives from the WSC nursing program, were on hand Saturday to offer free, on-the-spot “finger stick” blood sugar tests.
Demographic research continually reveals the U.S. Southeast to be the nation’s most affected region for diabetes occurrence. A recent federal report indicated the trend is getting worse, with Alabama among four states to see dramatic jumps in the diabetes rate since 1995. In fact, only Mississippi has a higher per-capita rate of diabetes among the 50 states.
Published last week in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control, the study suggests a strong link between the South's growing obesity problem and the uptick in cases of diabetes of both types.
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"The rise in diabetes has really gone hand in hand with the rise in obesity," said Linda Geiss, the report’s lead author.
Not surprisingly, Mississippi — the state with the largest proportion of residents who are obese — has the highest diabetes rate. Nearly 12 percent of Mississippians say they have diabetes, compared to the national average of 7 percent.
But the most dramatic increases in diabetes occurred largely elsewhere in the South and in the Southwest, where rates tripled or more than doubled. Alabama’s rate surpassed 11 percent, while Oklahoma's rose to about 10 percent. Georgia went to 10 percent; Kentucky to more than 9 percent.
Several Northern states saw rates more than double, too, including Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Maine.
Bolstering the numbers is the fact that more people with diabetes are living longer because better treatments are available.
Diabetes has become a massive American public health problem in the last 50 years, with the vast majority of cases stemming from obesity-related Type 2 diabetes. In 1958, fewer than 1 in 100 Americans had been diagnosed with diabetes. In 2010, the ration had risen to about 1 in 14.
Most of that increase has happened since 1990.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body has trouble processing sugar; it's the nation's seventh leading cause of death. Complications include poor circulation, heart and kidney problems and nerve damage.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.