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Japanese Diabetics Struggle to Get Insulin After Disaster

In Hong Kong there has been a sense of helplessness when it comes to  the recent natural disaster – earthquake and tsunami – which struck Japan.   We want to help, sitting from the comfort of our armchairs, as we watch the news, but how?  Images easily fill us with despair, disbelief and anger.  Most people here in Hong Kong have friends in Tokyo – myself included.  Families are worried – there are sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers who have relatives in Japan – just as there are connections to Japan all over the world.  We are closer here – just 4.10 hours by plane.  Even so, information is difficult to find or comprehend, official reports about the nuclear reactor in Fukushima don’t seem nearly transparent enough, but one thing is certain – Japan’s problems are severe.

In case you weren’t aware, roughly 7.3% of Japan’s 127 million have diabetes (that’s nearly 9 million).  (IDF 2010).

I have been asked if I know how people with diabetes in Japan are managing and to be honest it’s hard to ascertain even the most critical questions, such as – how many are missing, or dead?  Japan doesn’t know yet.  The public’s welfare is hanging by a thread, people in the area where the tsunami hit don’t have enough water or food, and are suffering the freezing cold with inadequate housing.  Diabetes seems very far down on the list indeed, but soon when life-lines begin to reappear, things will normalize and we may understand just how difficult it was for people who survived (or did not survive) the disaster with serious chronic illnesses like diabetes.

The Japan Diabetes Society has been utilizing various means to communicate with as many patients and doctors as possible via the web, mobile phones and emergency (government) crews.  Main concerns are those who need insulin, but do not have any.  Because of the destruction, finding a medical unit who can dispense the insulin would be impossible without a virtual network.  The Japan Diabetes Society has listed contacts in areas of the tsunami where insulin can be obtained and listed diabetes specialists with 24 hour contact numbers.  The Japan Diabetes Association also has a toll-free number for further information.  The good news is that something is being done.

The Minister of Health, Ritsuo Hosokawa, and the President of the Japan Association for Diabetes, Horoshi Kiyono, called upon insulin manufacturers, Sanofi -aventis, Novo-Nordisk and Eli Lilly to donate insulin to the areas of the tsunami, and all three insulin manufacturers, the Japanese Health Ministry and the Diabetes Association are working in collaboration.  The main concern is for acute hyperglycemia, DKA and death.

 In Tokyo, problems are different and not yet so severe – although this may change given the current critical status of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.  Because there have been scheduled power outages in Tokyo and areas surrounding the city, the Health Department has been concerned about the storage of insulin not just by patients BUT also for manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers.   The Health Department has issued alerts on how to store insulin when there is no electrical supply.

The Northeastern Pacific Ocean Earthquake Task Force of the Japan Society issued the following statement on 14th March:

“At the moment, we are not able to grasp the full picture of the disaster situation, or to consider the present situation for how difficult it is for people who have diabetes that require insulin to obtain insulin.  It is expected to be a problem for a lot of people.”

All we can do is hope and pray for now.

The Japan Diabetes Society


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