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Tackling diabetes over long term

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Maziar Mike Doustdar drives Novo Nordisk's plans to help 114 million Chinese manage their condition
In 1992, Maziar Mike Doustdar, then just 22, started his pharmaceutical industry career in Vienna, little realizing that after a quarter of a century, his work and life would involve travelling on business trips 176 days a year around the world, often espousing the cause of public health.
The executive vice-president of international operations at Novo Nordisk A/S, the world's top insulin producer by sales, has already scheduled his next China visit in August.
"There are 114 million people with diabetes in China and the country has very diverse diabetes prevalence in cities and rural areas with different lifestyles and diets, so we really need to be able to cater very detailed programs and activities when it comes to treatment of diabetes in China," said the 47-year-old executive.
Effective diabetes management, he said, requires high-quality medicines, clinics, trained doctors and nurses, as well as training of patients to competently manage their condition.
Persons with diabetes need education on aspects like balancing diet, blood glucose response, prescribed treatment and daily life activities, he said.
The history of Novo Nordisk in China can be traced back to 1962, when its insulin product shipped to the country. Today, the Copenhagen-based company is actively involved in China's ongoing healthcare reforms, doctor training and patient education.
The company today operates a research and development center in Beijing and a plant in Tianjin.
Doustdar, a dual passport holder (Austria and Iran), said he has high expectations from the group's Cities Changing Diabetes program, which is a response to the dramatic rise in urban diabetes across the world. It is a first-of-its-kind partnership platform for cross-disciplinary, cross-sector collaboration.
"The world is rapidly urbanizing, changing not just where we live, but the way we live. A major cause of Type 2 diabetes today is urbanization," said Doustdar, who previously worked in Greece, Turkey and Malaysia.
"Urban environments are already home to two-thirds of people with diabetes. This makes cities the front line in the fight against Type 2 diabetes-and where we must take action to hold back the alarming rise of the condition."
To accelerate the global fight against urban diabetes, Novo Nordisk in 2014 partnered with the Steno Diabetes Center in Copenhagen and the University College London to launch the Cities Changing Diabetes program.
The program has local partnerships in 11 cities, including five in China: Shanghai, Tianjin, Xiamen, Hangzhou and Beijing. It addresses social factors and cultural determinants that can increase Type 2 diabetes vulnerability among certain people living in cities.
Established in Denmark in 1923, Novo Nordisk now operates in 79 countries and regions with more than 42,100 employees, including over 4,000 in China. In addition to diabetes care, the group develops technologies to deal with serious chronic conditions like haemophilia, growth disorders and obesity. It has production facilities in the United States, Brazil, Denmark, France, China, Russia, Algeria and Japan.
As outlined in the Healthy China 2030 Blueprint, an action program announced in 2016, the Chinese government has been improving healthcare services in terms of drug affordability and healthcare access, as well as encouraging homegrown innovation to upgrade the country's healthcare sector.
Novo Nordisk has been keen to be a partner in the Healthy China 2030 campaign as it champions a number of relevant initiatives like educating doctors and patients, and creating awareness about diseases and the treatments available.
Doustdar said not many countries have long-term plans. So, it is refreshing to see China's sights set on 2030, "because solving the diabetes burden will at least take until 2030".
"It's easy to do long-term planning," said Doustdar, who received his bachelor's degree in international business from Webster University, Vienna, in 1994. "The pharmaceuticals industry compels you to think long-term, because research takes a long time. The cycles are long. People who work in a pharmaceutical company usually think long term by DNA."
Many drugmakers are developing products related to diabetes, cancer and daily health supplements, and Novo Nordisk will continue to invest in developing medicines for diabetes, obesity and growth, areas it is proficient in conducting research and development, Doustdar said.
"Diabetes has become more common across China," said Zhang Yuxin, a professor at the School of Public Health, China Medical University, Shenyang, Liaoning province.
"People with diabetes have inadequate blood sugar control, which can lead to serious complications like heart disease and stroke, damage to the kidneys or nerves, and to blindness."
Zhang said unless China develops better programs for detecting people with elevated blood sugar and helping them to improve their diet and physical activity and control their weight, diabetes will inevitably continue to impose a major burden on health systems in the country.