There are several gaps in our knowledge about diabetes and other non-communicable diseases (such as hypertension, high cholesterol and cancer) in Jamaica and the Caribbean

For instance while we have some estimates on the number of persons affected by diabetes in Jamaica, we do not know much about how common each type of diabetes is or the rate at which people are developing the disease. We also do not know how many persons with diabetes are affected by eye, kidney or nerve damage, heart disease or amputations or how these complications impact lives and survival. More importantly there are still discoveries to be made for us to understand who is at risk for diabetes, which persons develop certain complications, how it can be prevented or detected early and what treatment are the most effective in reducing complications and early death from this disease. More research is definitely needed in Jamaica and the Caribbean to understand these issues.

Local research is critical

Many of the recommendations that we make on non-communicable diseases are based on studies that have been done overseas. While many of these findings will apply to patients in Jamaica – there are some differences in our setting that make local research critical. One example of this is the use of the HbA1c to diagnose diabetes. The HbA1c result can be affected by iron deficiency anaemia and the presence of abnormal haemgloblins like sickle cell trait. These conditions are very common in Jamaica and so we are not sure if this recommendation is one we should also endorse. There is therefore a need for new tests to detect diabetes that are not affected by these factors and we should be actively involved in developing and evaluating them in our setting.

We can only answer some of these important questions about the care of non-communicable diseases care by doing research that can tell our own story.   The types of studies that we need to answer these questions are often costly and funding typically comes from international agencies through a very competitive application process. While many applications are not successful, with each funded project provides us with a chance to address important knowledge gaps that can help improve the lives of persons living with and affected by non-communicable diseases.

In addition to funding, research also depends on persons willing to participate in these activities. Research volunteers give up their time to answer questions and provide information that is needed to understand these issues. Some studies collecting blood, urine, hair and nails or doing special studies that may not be offered routinely. As researchers we are grateful to those persons who are willing to make this sacrifice to address important knowledge gaps.

Why the LIFE Project?

The University of the West Indies Caribbean Institute for Health Research is conducting several studies to address local health needs and issues. The LIFE project is one of our biggest projects addressing diabetes. This island-wide cohort (follow up study) of Jamaicans will help us to understand risk factors for diabetes as well as high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer.

We plan to enroll 8000 participants for this study. In the LIFE project we collect information on from participants on who they are (age, education, occupation, family history and genetic information), the communities in which they live and how they life (lifestyle practices – eating, drinking, alcohol use, smoking, physical activity, sleep, their work) to see what may put them at risk or even protect them for these chronic illnesses. Volunteers also donate blood, urine, hair and nail samples that can be used to understand how we can identify persons at risk for these conditions and which may help us to develop new tests or treatments that can improve disease outcomes.

With our own data, we can now tell our own story

The information that is provided from the LIFE project and other studies will not only allow us to tell our story but also share our story with others. By comparing our experiences of Jamaicans with those of other black populations in the Caribbean USA, UK and Africa we can better understand what is causing the high burden of chronic diseases and make a difference in the fight against these conditions.

Help us tell our story in the fight against non-communicable diseases by guiding, volunteering, and supporting local research.