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Diabetes India

By David Mendosa

Last Update: July 13, 2001

If you thought that there was too much talk about alternative cures for diabetes here, you should see what endocrinologists in India face.

“There is no such cure in India”

Professor P.V. Rao and his wife Dr. Ushabala Paturi manage the biggest and best diabetes Web sites in India. Dr. Rao, who has both an M.D. and a Ph.D. degree, heads the Department of Endocrinology and Metabolism in the School of Diabetology of the Nizam's Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad. A city of more than 3 million people, Hyderabad is the capital of Andhra Pradesh state in southern India.

Their main site is for Asian Indians with Diabetes. The complementary site for Diabetes Care Professionals and Researchers in India went on-line in April.

Recently, I telephoned Dr. Rao at his Hyderabad office from my home office in California. Aside from the extreme time zone difference—twelve and one-half hours—the world seems to be getting smaller now that international telephone rates are reasonable. The connection I got, however, was so bad that he called me back with much better sound quality.

When we spoke, Dr. Rao cautioned about Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional Indian healing system dating back 4,000 years. "The U.S. still believes that India has some truth for diabetes. I am trying to make myself clear for the record that there is no such cure in India."

On the Web site he is equally blunt, particularly in answers to questions from Indians in India and abroad, the most popular part of the site. "There are no Ayurvedic or other medicines of indigenous systems of medicine to cure diabetes."

The site mentions the supposed Methi (fenugreek) cure for diabetes that started right in Hyderabad in the 1990s before spreading around the world. In fact, he says that Ayurvedic, Unani (a thousand year old Persian system), and Siddha (Southern Indian) physicians in India use more than one hundred medicinal plants to treat diabetes.

Only one of these—guar gum—has any "proven blood glucose lowering effect." That is due, however, to its high fiber content rather than stimulating the release of insulin. Please note that guar gum, which I have used myself, must be taken in small amounts and with adequate water.

Considering India's ancient heritage, it's not surprising to find many people believing in the supposed cures that it offers. What surprised me, however, was that there are more people with diabetes there than anywhere else in the world.

In 1989 Dr. Rao was one of the coordinators of the only nationwide study of diabetes. Of the 12,000 people surveyed in Indian villages, they found about 2 percent to have diabetes. With a population of more than 1 billion people, that implies at least 20 million people with diabetes in the country.

So diabetes is not just a disease of the developed countries. It is, however, clearly a disease intensified by development. The prevalence of diabetes in urban India is 10 percent, according to the site. That is even higher than the U.S. rate. "But we have small studies this year that say that 14 percent of the population of our cities has diabetes," Dr. Rao told me. "It is increasing."

The increased prevalence of diabetes in India has a lot to do with a switch from a traditional to a Western diet. "We say that the traditional Indian diet is good for diabetes," Dr. Rao told me.

That specifically includes chana dal, which he noticed that I write about. "We eat it almost every day in India," he says. "That is very good."

Recipes for traditional Indian foods are another of the site's strengths. They include chana dal, although this site calls them by the other common name, Bengal gram dhal.

While other parts of the site are more popular with visitors, Dr. Rao says that he thinks the best pages are his directory of diabetes doctors. He has been keeping this list since 1985.

Since 1995 he has collected information from institutes and professional organizations all over India and circulating newsletters to about 1,500 doctors in the country. That was so time consuming and expensive that he started his Web sites to communicate current information better. With the Web's world-wide reach, that also benefits those of us on the other side of the planet. 

The American Diabetes Association originally published this article on its Web site as one of my “About the Internet” columns.

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