“Sweet Killer” (Diabetes Mellitus). Seventh leading cause of death in the United States.

Texas, so obese (eighth among the states), should be “NUMBER ONE,” right? Well, no. Not in this case. In the diabetic ranking of states, Texas is not number one. That honor goes to West Virginia. Texas just missed the “top ten” list. But we’re closing in. We’re number eleven! (All the rest are southern and Appalachian states.) The rate of increase of diabetes all over the U.S. is dramatic; it has doubled over the last two decades; 30 million diabetic, 84 million prediabetic (Center for Disease Control).

In addition to the deaths, diabetes (Type I and II) causes over $245 billion yearly in medical expenses and lost production. In the south Texas “valley” of the Rio Grande River, so close to Mexico, the rate is even higher.  Careful studies show adults (18-plus) have a rate of 28 to 30 percent have prediabetes. Why? Oh, you know why; not rocket science. Diet, genetic inheritance and insufficient physical activity. (The rate among Whites is 7.4 percent while that among Hispanics is 12 percent; Blacks and Native American rates are even higher—15 percent) The sweet killer is number one killer in Mexico. Lowest rates in the U.S., for comparison, are among citizens of Colorado and Utah (“State of Obesity,” Trust for America’s Health).

The figures are alarming. Two out of five Americans will acquire diabetes in their lifetime, one out of two Hispanic males (Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology). Because people are living longer the stress on the health care system of the country is enormous. But what is “diabetes?” Diabetes is a disease in which blood glucose (sugar) levels are above normal; anything over 125 mg/dL or higher, after overnight fast, is defined as diabetes (Mayo Clinic).

The sneaky “sugar disease,” untreated, can also lead to heart disease, blindness, nerve damage, kidney failure, and, ultimately amputation of lower limbs. Hope you don’t get it. If you got it, do something about it. Don’t know? Get tested (HEB/Wal-Mart). Test and act before you feel sick. Once sick you are likely to have organ damage, making control difficult and reversal doubtful.

Care is improving but the incidence is increasing. Why? Again, a no-brainer. There is more obesity; the connection between over-weight conditions and diabetes is clearly established. We, as a society, eat ever larger portions (Look! A restaurant promoting “all you can eat!”) Total intake is increasing, and many Americans expend less and less energy daily. At least thirty minutes of exercise daily is recommended.

The poor are especially hard-hit due to lack of quantity and quality of fruits and vegetables in their neighborhood grocery stores; major cities may be stuck with “food deserts,” forcing people to frequent fast food restaurants or buy junk food (Chips, anyone? Have another coke.) Often, the cause is ethnic preferences, (fried foods, flour tortillas). Safe areas in which to walk or exercise are too often not readily available.

Here in the Valley, there is a secret that can help. It is right down the street (off Highway 83), in Alamo. It is found at La Pulga, one of the valley’s grand “flea markets.” Go early, as crowds are enormous, parking is crazy. But, there is fun for all: multiple stalls of foods, tacos, raspas, plants, piñatas, cowboy hats, sparkly tee-shirts, assorted implements, bands and dancing! The secret, nestled among the hustle and bustle? A project named Poder/Power (Facebook: PODER2014).

At Poder, every Sunday, 9 AM to 1 PM, Dr. Ann Millard, Dr. Brian Wickwire and trained assistants offer free diabetes testing for Hemoglobin A1C (three-month average), without fasting. If diabetes is found, the project can provide two free visits with a doctor, if one does not have a doctor, and free lab at Nuestra Clinica del Valle (a federally qualified health center; nine clinics in Hidalgo County, the main one in San Juan).

Newly constructed overhead, open-air roofs protect against searing sun at the Pulga (Flea Market). There, midst the cacophony of sights and sounds, a salmon-colored booth (not a medical center, nor clinic) offers a cool respite, free diabetes testing, with nearly instant results and advice (also accommodations for children while you test).  It’s in the northeast corner, stall #B1218, near Entrance #5, near Big G’s Fireworks.

Volunteers, such as Dr. Isidore Flores (and, full disclosure, myself, as one with Type II diabetes), work together in the non-profit International Valley Health Institute, which supports this project with private donations. (Other support originated from Methodist Health Care Ministries.) The Institute has worked effectively on stopping smoking and is promoting school parks. Recommendations regarding diet and exercise are also part of their service. (They recommend the normal yearly test after age 45 be extended into the early thirties for the Valley, given its unique population.) Special attention is given to the elderly, since one-fourth of men and women over 65 have developed diabetes or will do so soon (American Diabetic Association).

Perhaps many of us of the “tercer edad,” as they say in Mexico, (over 60), “get” the old joke: “If I had known I would live so long, I would have taken better care of myself.” May we all, young, old, middle age, take better care of ourselves and get to La Pulga, or other appropriate medical attention as soon as possible. The earlier the better, for prevention and treatment. Don’t let the sweet killer kill you. Save yourself. Salud!