According to data from  the International Diabetes Federation, diabetes caused an estimated 96,000 deaths in South Africa in 2021. Additionally, the disease affects 1 in 9 adult South Africans, with 45.4% of people living with the disease in the country undiagnosed.

Over the last years, numerous healthtech companies in the country have put products on the market which seek to alleviate the country’s healthcare system to tackle the malady.

In February, Nasdaq-listed global healthtech firm Dexcom launched its flagship continuous glucose monitoring system, the Dexcom G7, in South Africa. Dexcom claims that the low-profile, all-in-one wearable warms up faster than any other CGM on the market, sending real-time glucose readings automatically to a compatible smart device or receiver without using painful finger sticks or scanning.

Dexcom’s continuous glucose monitoring system device, the G7, is now available in South Africa (Image source: Dexcom)

“The next-generation Dexcom G7 CGM System empowers users and helps simplify diabetes management with our smallest, most intuitive real-time CGM. Bringing our technology to more people around the world continues to be a top priority and we are thrilled that the diabetes community in South Africa will be amongst the first, outside of Europe, to experience the benefits of G7,” said Alex Moussa, Senior Vice President and General  Manager EMEA, Dexcom.

Another welcome technological advancement in the fight against diabetes is the launch of the partnership between international healthtech firm Olink and a Cape Town-based protein processing facility to research numerous diseases including diabetes.

The facility, D-CYPHR, enables access to proteomics and metabolomics technologies and expertise. It supports complex clinical and biological research that is not possible elsewhere in this region.

“One of the objectives of the DIPLOMICS programme is to enable and improve access to high-calibre ‘omics technologies and expertise. Through the D-CYPHR laboratory, we are excited about the introduction of the Olink technology, which will dramatically improve the quality and throughput of advanced proteomics research in South Africa,” said Dr Tim Newman, Program Manager for DIPLOMICS.

Accessibility problem still persists

Despite the prevalence of technologies such as Dexcom’s G7, they are only accessible to individuals who have health insurance plans.

According to a report by GetSavvi health, out of South Africa’s population of over 54 million people, only 17.4% are covered by a South African medical scheme. This means that only 9.5 million South Africans have access to private medical care while more than 44 million don’t.

This presents a major challenge as with diabetes, the longer it stays undiagnosed, the more difficult it will be to fight it. When diabetes is undetected or inadequately treated, people with diabetes are at risk of serious and life-threatening complications, such as heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, blindness and lower-limb amputation.

According to a healthcare professional who spoke to TechCabal on condition of anonymity, to successfully fight the diabetes war in South Africa using technology, there has to be a consideration to build products beyond just those which manage the condition.

“The main problem in South Africa is that people are not aware that they do have diabetes. They only find out when it’s too late. So as much as technology in managing the disease is a welcome development, it has to extend to beyond that. There should be innovations which notify people that they have the condition before it’s too late,” the  source said.

This is a challenge, especially for healthtech startups in South Africa. Healthcare equity will only be achieved if all individuals who need healthcare are aware that they need it and afterwards, have unmitigated access to it.

As diabetes continues to severely affect the South African population, technology has so far played a significant role in the fight against the disease but there is still so much more to be done in the fight.

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