Insulin Discovery Centenary

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 1st September 2021.

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Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

I am pleased to speak in this members’ business debate on 100 years of insulin, and I thank my friend and colleague Emma Harper for bringing it to the chamber. Emma is passionate about education on and the care and treatment of diabetes, and no better person could have introduced the debate.

Thanks to a helpful briefing from Diabetes Scotland, we have learned that more than 312,000 people in Scotland live with diabetes and that the condition is creating one of the fastest-growing and potentially most devastating health crises of our time. The number of people who are diagnosed has more than doubled in the past 20 years. That is the bad news. The better news is that, with advancements in technology from blood glucose monitors to insulin pumps and looping, there is a range of options that can support someone with taking insulin, checking blood sugars and managing their condition.

Thanks to 100 years of insulin, for people living with type 1 diabetes, it is no longer the death sentence that it was prior to 1923, when Scottish doctor John Macleod and his Canadian colleague Frederick Banting jointly received a Nobel prize for the discovery of insulin. Prior to the discovery, it was exceptional for people with type 1 diabetes to live for more than a year or two.

Despite the great medical and technological advances that have been made since then, sadly, people living with diabetes are being hit hard by Covid. Almost 20 per cent of coronavirus-related deaths in Scottish hospitals are of people with diabetes. The figure was released at the start of the pandemic, so it might be a bit higher now.

As we have heard, the condition has also exacerbated inequality, with rates of diabetes 80 per cent higher in our most deprived communities. In addition, people living in poverty are more than twice as likely to develop life-changing complications, such as heart problems and strokes. In Diabetes Scotland’s recent survey of more than 1,000 people living with diabetes, one in five said that they are having difficulty accessing key diabetes technology. Therefore, while we celebrate 100 years of insulin, we must look to the improvements that can be made for all people who are living with diabetes now, wherever they live and whatever their background.

I was shocked to learn just how many people are living with type 2 diabetes—according to the briefing, the figure is 90 per cent of those with diabetes. I was almost as shocked as I was when I was diagnosed with the condition two years ago. Fortunately, after a short spell on medication and a change in diet and lifestyle, I managed to reverse the condition in three months. It is preventable and can be reversed. The care and advice that I received—including diagnosis at my general practitioner and national health service support services for eye care and dietary advice—were exemplary.

Of course, no one could have predicted lockdown lifestyle in early 2020, and now many of us find that a lot of repair work is needed to reduce our sugar levels. However, it can be done, and I am determined to do it again. We must recognise that structural factors make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for people to make healthy choices. The Government must continue to address the social determinants of health inequality and the reality of the damage that poverty can do.

I have family members living with type 1 diabetes, and I hear from them how relentless and overwhelming managing it can feel. Emma Harper articulately outlined those difficulties. Diabetics must be supported at every level. Thankfully, much support can be found online from Diabetes Scotland, NHS Inform and information websites by way of dietary advice, including some delicious healthy eating recipes, and exercise and lifestyle advice.

In conclusion, we must ensure the best diabetes care for everyone, no matter their postcode or background. Of course we know that new technologies can change the lives of type 1 diabetes sufferers. Indeed, I feel fortunate that I can keep my condition at bay without the need for insulin, which so many people rely on. However, the onus is on me. Type 2 diabetes is preventable, so let us stem the tide of this mushrooming condition by making healthy food and lifestyle information available for everyone. We can save the NHS a fortune and take control of our own wellbeing.