A diabetes epidemic is spreading through the Cree communities because of poor diet, inadequate exercize and lack of information about the problem, warn health experts.

The number of Crees with diabetes is 150 times greater today than it was 20 years ago and rising steadily.

“Everybody I’ve talked to is diagnosing it left, right and centre,” said Mavis Verronneau, a diabetes education consultant with the Cree Health Board.

Verronneau said Crees lack proper information about the affliction. “Probably the biggest obstacle is getting people aware they need more information.”

At the moment, the entire Cree Territory has only one dietician, a number Verronneau said is woefully inadequate. Simple things like eating a balanced diet and going for a regular walk are the best ways of avoiding diabetes, she said.

No one knows what causes diabetes, but it is generally more present among Cree women and in communities closer to the south. Altogether, 429 Crees have diabetes, according to the latest survey by the Health Board done in 1993. That’s compared to only three individuals in 1975.

The survey found Waswanipi and Waskaganish have the highest rate —8 per cent of residents have diabetes. In both communities, 11 per cent of women have it.

Mistissini and Eastmain are next at 7 per cent, followed by Nemaska (4 per cent), Wemindji and

Chisasibi (3 percent) and Whapmagoostui (2 per cent). No figures are available yet from Ouje-Bougoumou.

Another survey is presently under way and Verronneau warned that the numbers are sure to be higher. “Guaranteed.”

She added that for every person diagnosed with diabetes, there is another who is unaware he or she has it. “People go for years without being diagnosed. The numbers are always inaccurate.”

The type of diabetes common among Crees can go unnoticed for 15 years. It usually sets in after age 40.

Once it sets in, it can cause blindness, impotence and loss of circulation to the feet, which can mean amputation.

In advanced cases, the diabetic is often permanently hospitalized and their blood cleansed by a dialysis machine every two or three days. At present, seven individuals are in the Chisasibi Hospital due to complications from diabetes.

Verronneau said solutions have to come at the community level—for example, through organizing walking clubs and building walking paths.

“You don’t need pills and you don’t need the clinic. You need to make it a community program instead of us people coming from the south with solutions.”

Across Canada, 19 per cent of Native people are thought to have diabetes, compared to a Canadian average of 10 per cent.