With traditional habits being replaced by Western lifestyles and diets, diabetes now looms as a deadly threat to several indigenous populations across Asia, the Pacific and the Americas, according to medical experts.
Professor Martin Silink, head of the Brussels-based International Diabetes Foundation, said that indigenous people appeared to have a greater genetic risk of contracting type 2 diabetes, which is often undiagnosed.
Silink said, "They also have the genes that make the diabetes more damaging, so they are more prone to develop the serious complications of diabetes."
While around 230 million people or about six percent of adults worldwide have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the problem was worse in developing nations and among indigenous people, where up to one in two adults will have the disease.
These results were announced at a gathering in Melbourne of diabetes experts from the United States, Australia, Canada and the Pacific islands.
According to conference host Professor Paul Zimmet diabetes was unknown in the Pacific before World War II, but now the region had some of the highest rates in the world and where the existence of indigenous communities were at risk.
Nauru, the Pacific nation and the world's smallest republic with a population of 10,000 people had over 30 percent of adults aged over 20 years with type 2 diabetes. And among adults aged 35 years and above this figure was about one in two adults.
Similar rates of between 25 to 50 percent of diseased adults are found in American and Canadian indigenous peoples as well as in Australia's Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander populations.
Zimmet said, "It is a tragic situation, but not a lost one."
"The world needs to act now if we are to deal with this problem, which threatens to consume world economies and bankrupt health systems. It could also mean the end of some of our treasured indigenous groups."
Silink said that worldwide there were around 7 to 8 million new cases of diabetes every year. Health experts foresee over 250 million people suffering from the disease by 2025.
Silink said the International Diabetes Foundation was pushing for a U.N. resolution to make governments encourage more active lifestyles and better diets.
He added, "There is a death due to diabetes every 10 seconds, and an amputation due to diabetes every 30 seconds. We are dealing with the biggest epidemic in world history."