Tang Niao Bing (Sugar-Urine Sickness): Diabetes on the Rise in China

I received several comments on my website regarding the magnificent recycling efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Old Man River (Mr. Zhen and his wife, Ms. Wu).  It’s so nice to hear how others appreciate the hard work the two have done over the years to make our campus a little cleaner and brighter.

Here’s a bit more about my neighbors, including my other friends, which causes me great concern about the health of the Chinese people.  The culprit?  Tang Niao Bing (Sugar-Urine Sickness), known in English as diabetes.

Increases in “Sugar-Urine Sickness”

During my 3 years away from the college, the Rivers have changed in a couple of ways.  Aside from aging, Mrs. River now has Type 2 diabetes.  She told me that she goes twice a day to the local medical clinic across from the school front gate to receive her insulin injections.  I’m guessing most Chinese doctors  recommend that medical personnel give daily insulin shots rather than have people do it themselves but maybe I’m wrong.  Perhaps it’s her own choice to do this with help because she’s nervous about doing it herself.

       I do know that diabetes is on the rise in China. In my former school, our waiban (foreign affairs director) announced his aging father had diabetes, among other ailments.  Here in Luzhou, our college president is an insulin dependent diabetic (Type 2 as of two years ago) and Jalin’s mom (my former Chengdu neighbor) is taking pills for the disease.  Her daughter (a college student in New York City) and her older sister, who has a massage parlor in the Big Apple, send her the medications from America.

Yes, due to the rising increase of diabetes, China has these drugs as well but  quality control is iffy.  Some of the items sold in pharmacies are later found out to be fakes.  A majority of Chinese would much rather have overseas’ meds than meds from China just for this reason.  They are especially wary of buying “American” drugs in country.  TV and newspaper reports remind consumers that bottles and labels may say this is an overseas’ product but the contents have been tampered with and exchanged for cheaper or fake pills.  This has been a growing practice in China with pharmaceutical companies and small, homerun pharmacies being put to the forefront for fraud.

What’s Causing the Rise in Diabetes?

Butter cookies, Dove chocolates and crunchy noodle chips: Just a few modern goodies that have overtaken young people's traditional diets.

Butter cookies, Dove chocolates and crunchy noodle chips: Just a few modern, unhealthy  goodies that have overtaken young people’s traditional diets.

The August edition of National  Geographic has a very frightening, eye-opening, extensive article entitled “Sugar: Why We Can’t Resist It” which points out just how prevalent this condition has become in the world.  One paragraph (p. 96) reports:  Why in 1980 did 153 million people in the States have diabetes and now we’re up to 347 million?  The culprit:  Sugar.

While Mrs. River, our president and Jalin’s mom most likely didn’t get diabetes due to sugar overload, I can see it easily happening in the country’s younger generation, especially the kids.

It was great when China opened up to the outside world in the early 80’s, but the open-door policy did bring a huge negative change to the country, namely in people’s diets.

In downtown Luzhou, our McDonalds always has a long line for ice-cream cones, served from this street-side walk-up window.

In downtown Luzhou, our McDonalds always has a long line for ice-cream cones, served from this street-side walk-up window.

All those fast-food chain restaurants, food and drink products from America and other countries seized China by storm.  Walking in any grocery store now yields aisles full of chocolates (Dove, Nestle, Hershey’s, Cadburys), soft drinks and juices (Fanta, Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, Minutemaid and tons of sugar-filled Chinese brands as well), kids’ single servings of sweetened, flavored pure milk products (strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, apple, melon), cookies galore, and a huge variety of  ice-cream bars not to mention all the sugary breads and cakes that have overtaken all the bakeries.

Ah, those delicious, wonderful bakeries!

Years ago, bread was traditionally steamed mantou, both plain and lightly sweetened. Now European style bakeries which cater to Chinese tastes have overtaken all shopping districts.  Bakeries can be found on every street selling to the masses sugar-laden buttery sponge cakes, crunchy cookies and fluffy bread buns or loaves. In fact, the breakfast of many school kids, including my college students, consists of a piece of yellow sponge cake and a carton of sweetened milk picked up on the way to early morning classes.

It used to be a hard-boiled egg and a plain mantou.

My former student, Ji Ke, still enjoys his breakfast mantou, bought from local sellers.

My former student, Ji Ke, still enjoys his breakfast mantou, bought from local sellers.

Diabetic Research Findings

In America, the American Diabetes Association states that in the US, 1 out of 10 people have diabetes, a total of 25.8 million, Type 1 and 2 both included.  Of that number, 18.8 have been diagnosed and 7 million most likely undiagnosed.  Not included are the 79 million categorized as pre-diabetic.

A United Kingdom’s website (Diabetes.co.uk, reporting on the global diabetes community) stated that an estimated 1 out of 10 people in China have diabetes (Type 1 or 2) while in the UK, it’s 1 out of 20.

China is likewise thought to have surpassed India with the highest number of diabetes reported within a highly populated country.  Also mentioned was that Type 2 was rarely seen a decade ago in China.  Now is a different story, with numbers having tripled according to experts.  This seems to be somewhat proven in my own encounters with friends.

In fact, 20 years ago, when I first came to China, no one even knew the disease’ name in Chinese.  Now tang niao bing is known by everyone, even the young kids I meet and the poorer, less educated people from the countryside.

Numbers Not 100% Accurate, But Alarming

According to most experts, it’s hard to estimate just how many have diabetes in the country because many people go undiagnosed.  A preliminary study conducted in China by the International Diabetes Federation found the number of diabetics has risen in excess of 92 million.

The certain thing is that diabetes in China is becoming dangerously high.

One of the major suppliers of diabetic medications in China is the US pharmaceutical company, Merck, whose business has increased astronomically in China.

“China has, unfortunately, become the world’s capital for diabetes,” said Michael Rosenblatt, Merck’s chief medical officer, in an Oct. 25 interview in Shanghai.  “The government is starting to pay more attention a this is the beginning of a huge problem, both health and economic.”

My Gifts Brought Back to Chinese Friends Are Changing

         In the past, I used to bring chocolates and American goodies to my Chinese friends after visits to the States.  These were one of the few things that were not labeled “Made in China” and were considered unique.

Not any more, especially as almost all of my former candy presents can now be purchased in any Chinese grocery store.

Now I focus more upon sale-item clothing, skin care products, jewelry, multi-vitamins (very expensive in China, and often fakes) or small local items.  They last longer and can be kept as a memento of their foreign friend, Connie.

Hard to hold on to an American Snicker bar for 20 years but not so for my hometown’s name and logo emblazoned on a T-shirt or a mug.  Those kind of gifts are more health-friendly, and certainly more appreciated.

And having said that, it’s about time for me to begin  that gift shopping already.  With just one week to go before my return to China, it’s always best to get a head start.

From Illinois, as always, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace), and good health, for your day.

About connieinchina

I have been in the Asia region for 30 years as an English language teacher. 28 of those have been spent with the Amity Foundation, a Chinese NGO that works in all areas of development for the Chinese people. Amity teachers are placed at small colleges throughout China as instructors of English language majors in the education field. In other words, my students will one day be English teachers themselves in their small villages or towns once they graduate. Currently, this is my 13th year in Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. The college is located in Luzhou city (loo-joe), Sichuan Province, a metropolis of 5 million people located next to the Yangtze River .
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