BY 2050, Singapore may have as many as one million diabetics.
Every one in two people, by age 70, will be diabetic - up from one in three today. Of the adult population, 15 per cent will suffer from the disease, compared with 11.3 per cent now.
And because people here are not just getting older, but also fatter, obesity is likely to push up the risks of diabetes, which in turn raises the risk of stroke, heart and kidney failure, and blindness.
Ageing and obesity are the two main factors that will drive Singapore's number of diabetics up in the next 40 years, according to new research by the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
Sounding the warning yesterday at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, its dean Chia Kee Seng said such academic knowledge has to be translated into action. "We can now project the impact of proposed obesity reduction programmes on the prevalence of diabetes in Singapore in 2050," he told more than 400 international participants at the opening of the inaugural Singapore International Public Health Conference.
"We hope this kind of capability can help bridge the gap between research and policies."
The two-day conference, on Translating Public Health Research into Practice, is jointly hosted by the school and the Chapter of Public Health and Occupational Physicians of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore.
Dr Alex Cook, the researcher at the school who worked out the 2050 figures, told The Straits Times that if Singapore manages to keep obesity in check, it could reduce the number of diabetics by 15 to 20 per cent by 2050 - or 150,000 to 200,000 fewer diabetic patients.
Dr Amy Khor, Minister of State for Health and Manpower, said in her opening address: "We hope to see patients' and population's needs better identified."
She said what the school is doing "exemplifies the kind of approach we need - an academic endeavour that explicitly envisions and works towards real-world application of their research work".
Professor Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in his keynote speech, said the health sector cannot fight chronic diseases on its own; it takes political will, economic support and the empowerment of people.
"When we name lifestyle as a risk factor, the whole of society is to blame, not just the individual," he said. He gave examples of how some countries are tackling the rise of chronic ailments.
Britain cut out 6,000 premature deaths and saved £1.5 billion (S$3 billion) in health-care costs when its people each cut 0.9g - or less than a quarter teaspoon - of salt from their diet a year, he said.
Denmark last year became the first country in the world to impose a "fat tax" on food such as butter, pizza and sausages.
Last month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg got his ban on 470ml large sodas, which he blames for the growing obesity rate. New York City spends
US$4 billion (S$4.9 billion) a year on treating obese patients.
Prof Piot said the gloomy picture Professor Chia had painted on the rise of diabetes here is not inevitable: "The challenge is to say it is unacceptable that one in two people here will be diabetic."