Astonishing figures on the £12bn problem facing the NHS

Diabetes is the biggest problem currently facing the NHS, costing around £12 billion a year Photo: REUTERS/Simon Newman

What's the biggest problem facing the NHS? Reorganisation? Cost Savings? Well how about this. A disease which costs the NHS almost £12 billion a year. That's about 10 per cent of its total budget and everyone agrees it is going to get worse.

Got it yet? Of course it's diabetes - especially Type 2 diabetes which is linked to inactivity and obesity.

Today come "astonishing" figures that show how diabetes targets particular ethnic groups. Researchers backed by the Wellcome Trust and the British Heart Foundation has published the results of a study following 5,000 Londoners for 20 years.

And it reveals that almost half of all people of Asian, African and African-Caribbean descent will develop Type 2 diabetes by the time they're in their late seventies. That compares with 20 per cent for people of European descent.

Today come "astonishing" figures that show how diabetes targets particular ethnic groups. Credit: Anthony Devlin/PA Archive/Press Association Images

And what's worse, Asians tend to be diagnosed with diabetes at an early age - around 60 on average, which makes them more prone to complications like stroke and heart disease. What's the reason for this huge difference? Well, diabetes is linked to genetic factors, but Professor Nish Chaturvedi, from Imperial College London who led the study, told me those genetic factors apply to Asians, Europeans, and Africans pretty much equally so can't explain the difference.

For Asian, African and African-Caribbean women, carrying extra weight around the tummy explained some of the difference. Credit: Fiona Hanson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

For Asian, African and African-Caribbean women, carrying extra weight around the tummy explained some of the difference. But not for men. Researchers believe there may be some effects in early life (or even in the womb) which explains why these ethnic groups are so vulnerable. Something that "sets" their bodies up to deal with hunger, even starvation, in their native countries, but which goes wrong when they move to Europe and adopt fat-rich diets and sedentary lifestyles.

Arjun Kumar came to Britain as an engineer in 1968. He has a family history of diabetes and now has to inject insulin to control his disease. He says he wants to "shout from the mountains" to warn his fellow Asians - including his three sons of the dangers of diabetes. But in his community, you don't even mention diabetes its a stigma.

GP and medical advisor to the Heart Foundation, Mike Knapton, told me patients too often dismiss diabetes as "a bit of sugar in my water" a mild disease. It isn't: it can cause serious, fatal complications and it's going to be perhaps the biggest problem the NHS faces in the next couple of decades.