Tackling the region’s growing problem, diabetes
For years, Hussain Albar watched his mother suffer from diabetes. Each day, she would prick herself several times in order to log in a notebook her blood glucose levels, then every few months visit her doctor in Jeddah for a checkup, with the notebook, to see how she was doing.
Watching this somewhat tedious task day to day, he looked to see if an online app, to hold the data, would make it easier. He looked for a better way for his mother to track her blood glucose levels, but found nothing in Arabic. A software engineer by profession, he decided to build one himself, and launched Sokry (which means ‘diabetes’ in Arabic) in June 2016.
The app aims at controlling and managing a person’s blood glucose levels, first by tracking meals and activity levels while offering healthy lifestyle tips, and second by daily entry of his/her blood glucose levels, along with food intake, in order to spot any trends.
Since its launch, the app which produces personalized graphs, has been downloaded about 15,000 times, of which 10 percent have been engaged with the app for at least three months.
The D word
According to the World Bank, non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, will account for 87 percent of all deaths in the GCC, and 81 percent in MENA countries outside the GCC,by 2030.
Diabetes has two main forms: Type 1, which usually starts from a young age, and Type 2, which typically develops later in life. The latter makes up about 90 percent of cases. While both are treatable with insulin, a hormone, there is no known cure. Serious long-term complications faced by diabetics include heart disease, strokes, and kidney failure.
The International Diabetes Federation (IDF), in a 2015 report, estimated that approximately 35 million people in the region (aged between 20 and 79) were suffering from diabetes, and of these 40 percent were undiagnosed.
A market to be filled
With the growing problem, there is an increasing need for help when it comes to education, prevention, and treatment for those living with diabetes.
Apps like Sokry help with what is a must for diabetes patients: the monitoring of their disease.
In Beirut, two projects are underway addressing the painstaking issue of pricking oneself four to five times a day in order to measure blood glucose levels. Ediamond (electromagnetic diabetes monitoring device) and Gluco-Z are both working towards non-invasive, continuous monitoring of blood-glucose levels.
Ediamond’s Dr. Assaad Eid, from the faculty of medicine at the American University of Beirut, began working on an alternative to the pricking a year ago. They are now conducting some simulations with the engineering department. The UK Lebanon Tech Hub’s new R&D department announced that it would be funding their research.
“If you have poor control of diabetes you’ll have complications,” said Eid. He told Wamda that the first prototype could be ready in a few months while the first commercially available functional device could be within another three years.
Similarly for Najib Abou Ismail’s Gluco-Z, it looks like it will be 18 months before they have a useable product. They will kick-off fundraising in coming December.
The other portals looking to fight the rise of Type 2 diabetes promote and monitor sensible eating, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight.
Nabdacare in Egypt offers digital products for home-based diabetes care. They have an application that monitors people’s health through cloud-based health records. Founder Ihab Fouly estimates that out of the 60,000 people currently using their app, 20 percent are diabetic.
Governments are also starting to play their part. After research finding that 15 percent of Abu Dhabi students were obese, the Health Authority of Abu Dhabi launched Health Heroes, an app gamifying health education. Similarly, NYUAD is conducting a long-term study into the causes of diabetes.
Aside from diet monitoring, there is also a need for basic education about diabetes. There is a slew of health information related websites, from Altibbi to Etobb to Sohati.com, providing more and more information about the disease.
Diabetes.bh, a Bahrain-based education and networking platform that addresses the issue of diabetes, was set up in 2011. They say it came from a need of a lack of collaboration within the diabetes community. “People need information,” said cofounder Tariq Al-Olaimy. “For example, there’s a strong link between climate change and diabetes, and the two sides might not know much about each other, so we are there for information sharing and networking.”
For Sokry, the next stage will be a telemedicine feature, linking users to doctors. “A lot of patients don’t go back to their doctors and this feature will make that easier,” Albar told Wamda. Addressing the issue of lack of information about the disease, the app will also connect patients to educators.
The feature of allowing doctors, see video above, to check in on the patients records, via the app, has been rolled out.
Albar’s mother still has to take her blood four to five times a day but she uses the app every time. The founder has also received a lot of positive feedback from users.
Healthcare centers and governments will face increasing financial burdens to fight diabetes in the coming years. To date, there are no exact numbers on the cost of treating the disease to the region, however, a report from BMI Research, said Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have one of the highest diabetes-related expenditure on a per capita basis, reported at $1,145, and $2,156, respectively.
While in the US funding for startups looking to help monitor, or prevent diabetes, is on the rise, in the MENA it is hard to come by, for healthcare in general.
For Al-Olaimy though, these regional initiatives are not enough, and medical funding tends to go towards the symptoms rather than the prevention. “There is a mindset that someone else [like the US, or Europe] will solve the issue,” he said, “and we’ll follow suit. If the same approach to supporting new industries and ecosystems, such as fintech, was taken to the health field then that would be really good and you would see results.”
Other apps that could be of use to those looking to monitor their health include :
Launching at the start of July, Weightmonitor UAE is basically that, a weight monitoring app that works like a dietician. They have users in 175 cities.
Since 2013, Arab Media Content, based in Palestine, has been running Mdiet, an app, all in Arabic, that allows users to basically take on diet plans. Setting them apart from others on the market, especially those also in Arabic is their database of over 25,000 Arabic dishes.
If you know of more apps or devices in the works or on the market, please let us know in the comments section below.
Feature image via Freepik.