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The Special Diabetes Program: Providing Hope for People With Diabetes

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Making a Difference in Tribal Communities Across the Country, by Cathy Abramson

This November, we celebrate not only National Diabetes Awareness Month but also Native American Heritage Month. While it is easy to consider this a mere coincidence, it is hard to ignore the connection between diabetes and the American Indian community. But rather than focus on the staggering number of American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) suffering from type 2 diabetes—2.8 times higher than the national average—this November we choose to focus on the Special Diabetes Program, an amazing program that is making a real difference not only on type 2 diabetes in Indian country, but also on type 1 diabetes nationally and here in Michigan.

The Special Diabetes Program has two parts—the Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDPI) fighting type 2 diabetes in AI/AN communities and the Special Diabetes Program (SDP) advancing type 1 diabetes research. Diabetes is a human and financial burden, affecting over 26 million Americans with a cost to the U.S. economy of approximately $174 billion. In Michigan, according to 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, approximately 685,000 people—8.6 percent of the state’s population—have diagnosed diabetes with many of them suffering from serious diabetes complications or conditions. Addressing diabetes treatment and prevention is important to me not only as a member of Michigan’s Sault Ste. Marie Tribe; but also as Chair of the National Indian Health Board.

Congress created SDPI in 1997 to address the growing epidemic of type 2 diabetes in tribal communities. The program has grown and is our nation’s most strategic and effective federal effort to combat diabetes in our tribal communities.

Supporting 404 diabetes treatment and prevention programs in 35 states, SDPI is clearly having a big impact in our communities and on people with diabetes. Blood sugar levels have declined, complications from cardiovascular disease have decreased, and the incidence rates of end stage renal disease have fallen – which translates into millions of dollars of savings to Medicare. In Michigan, SDPI-supported programs are helping in the fight against diabetes.

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Addressing Type 1 as Well as Type 2 Diabetes, by Isabel Burger

My family has a long history with diabetes; my grandmother has type 2 diabetes and I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2007 when I was 8 years old. While I can benefit from exercise in my efforts to control my blood sugar, activity alone will never cure my condition, as my pancreas no longer produces insulin. My hope for a diabetes-free future lies in the Special Diabetes Program. I see the benefits of SDPI-supported programs in many communities in Michigan as well as the research on type 1 diabetes supported through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

Thanks to SDP funding, researchers at the NIH are making real progress in cure therapies, prevention studies and treatment improvements.

I work hard to manage my diabetes well every day, but it is a constant struggle. If my blood sugar is too low, I cannot play sports or go fishing with my friends. I feel like I do not have the privileges other 14-year-olds have of being able to just be a kid. Diabetes is with me every minute of every day. But with initiatives like the Artificial Pancreas Project, an automated system to disperse insulin based on real-time changes in blood sugar levels, I have hope that one day I will not have to always monitor my blood sugar levels. You see, this is why we have the Special Diabetes Program, because it gives hope to everyone suffering from diabetes. Hope that one day we will all live a healthy diabetes-free life. Hope that one day we will have a cure for diabetes.

The Special Diabetes Program expires October 1, 2013 and we hope that Congress will renew the program this year so that the SDP can continue to provide people with type 2 and type 1 diabetes hope and move us closer to new therapies and cures.

Cathy Abramson is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Indians, has served on her Tribe’s council since 1996, largely focusing on health, youth, education and elder issues. She is also the National Indian Health Board Chairperson and Bemidji Area Representative. Isabel “Izzy” Burger is a member of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. She has testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and written to the President of the United States to inform him of the issues that impact the lives of diabetic children every day.