Native Americans in Oregon and nation offer lessons for fighting diabetes

Michael TeepleMichael Teeple, 60, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, got diabetes five years ago, shortly after recovering from a lifelong battle with alcoholism that left him homeless for a decade. The Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest, or NARA, helped him find sobriety and now helps him manage diabetes with classes and regular medical checkups. Teeple says he considers it a miracle he is still sober and alive. “I was just blessed.”

As diabetes climbs to epidemic levels among American teens, solutions for fighting the disease are emerging from Indian country, notes Dave Baldrige in a column this month for the Public Broadcasting System.

Under the federal Special Diabetes Program for Indians launched by the Indian Health Service in 1998, the number of diabetes clinics has nearly doubled to reach 94 percent of reservations and urban Native American clinics, Baldrige reports. The programs have dramatically reduced blood sugar and bad cholesterol among Native Americans and lowered their rate of diabetes-related end-stage kidney disease by 28 percent, he reports.

The Oregonian in May reported similar results for Oregon in one installment of a five-part series on health disparities affecting Native Americans in the Portland area called “Invisible Nations, Enduring Ills.”

Native Americans have tackled diabetes head-on because they have been hit harder by it than any other racial and ethnic group in the country.

“The one with the biggest problem has to solve the problem,” says Sharon Stanphill, director for the Cow Creek tribal health center in Roseburg. “Indian country knows diabetes. We know what to do.”

Nationally, 1 in 6 Natives has diabetes, more than double the rate of white Americans. Nearly a third have pre-diabetes. Natives die at three times the rate of the general population from the disease, which can cut a life short by 15 years.

Now the disease is rapidly spreading among all Americans, particularly youth. Nearly one in four teens has diabetes or pre-diabetes, up from one in 10 a decade ago.

Nearly all tribal health clinics, including those in Oregon, have formed teams to track diabetes patients through the IHS special diabetes program. The clinics offer nutrition, weight management, community exercise and diabetes education.

In the first decade of the program, patients saw their blood sugar drop 13 percent, bad cholesterol fall 17 percent and kidney dysfunction plummet by a third. About $3 million of IHS diabetes money a year reaches Oregon, where it flows to 17 programs, including the one run in Portland by the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest, or NARA.

Since 2004, NARA and the Southern Oregon Diabetes Prevention Consortium – which includes the Coquille, Cow Creek Band of Umpqua and Klamath tribes – have run clinics to help pre-diabetic and diabetic Native Americans change their lifestyles.

They offer pre-diabetic patients 16 classes by doctors, counselors and dietitians on new ways to cook, eat and exercise. Patients get a life coach. They are expected to quit drinking and lose 7 percent of their weight. They meet regularly in small groups for a year.

The southern Oregon program has worked with 170 pre-diabetic Native Americans since it began, and fewer than nine of them have developed the disease. NARA has taken 86 per-diabetics through its program so far and only four progressed to diabetes. The association tracks about 500 patients with diabetes and 400 with pre-diabetes in the Portland area.

 — Bill Graves