In its first report on the issue released in conjunction with World Health Day 2016 today, it revealed the number of adults living with diabetes has almost quadrupled since 1980 to reach 422 million.
In 2012 alone diabetes caused 1.5 million deaths.
The report called for action from all stakeholders on the crisis.
“From the analysis it is clear we need stronger responses not only from different sectors of government, but also from civil society and people with diabetes themselves, and also producers of food and manufacturers of medicines and medical technologies,” WHO’s director-general Dr Margaret Chan said.
“The report reminds us that effectively addressing diabetes does not just happen: it is the result of collective consensus and public investment in interventions that are affordable, cost-effective and based on the best available science.”
The call was echoed by European commissioner for health and food safety Vytenis Andriukaitis on Twitter.
The commissioner touched upon the subject in a speech to members of the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health yesterday.
“Diabetes affects citizens who are socially the most vulnerable. Obesity and malnutrition follow a socioeconomic gradient. The highest rates of obesity and diabetes are observed within those citizens who have lowest levels of income, education and live in difficult social conditions,” he said.
“If a pack of cookies full of fat and sugar costs less than one euro and you find it in every corner of supermarkets; while a pack of whole grain cereals cost four times more, and is difficult to find; what choice are people given?”
Commenting on the WHO report, Libby Dowling, senior clinical advisor for the charity Diabetes UK, said: “While this study attributes the increase in diabetes prevalence in Western Europe in part to an ageing population, it is crucial that we recognise the most important risk factor for Type 2 diabetes which is being overweight or obese – almost two in every three people in the UK are overweight or obese and therefore at increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.”
In the UK alone there are four million people currently living with diabetes, an estimated 549,000 of which have undiagnosed type 2 diabetes.
“It is estimated that, if nothing changes, five million people in the UK will be living with the condition by 2025, making the need to tackle this serious health condition more urgent than ever.”
In 2013 the charity backed the five-year Diabetes Remission Clinical Trial (DiRECT) with a £2.4m (€3.13m) grant, the biggest figure in the charity's 80-year history.
The ongoing study will test the efficacy of a low-calorie diet to reverse type-2 diabetes.
The researchers hope the strategy could be a cheaper alternative to tablets and surgery.
Currently the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) spends about £75m (€97.93m) a year on drugs to help regulate the blood glucose levels of people with type-2 diabetes, not to mention the cost of invasive and potentially risky surgical operations such as gastric banding and bypasses to help patients lose weight rapidly.
Food giant BENEO welcomed the theme of this year's World Health Day.
“This year’s ‘Beating Diabetes’ World Health Day campaign, sponsored by the World Health Organisation, once again brings into focus the importance of maintaining a normal body weight, having a healthy diet and regular exercise to counteract diabetes. With ‘prevention’ the number one goal of the ‘Beating Diabetes’ campaign, it reminds us yet again, that we as ingredients producers and food and beverage manufacturers have a vital part to play in the world’s ‘health mix’," said Anke Sentko, vice president of regulatory affairs and nutrition communication.
She said ingredient like BENEO's chicory inulin ingredient Palatinose could be part of this multi-stakeholder solution.
“We as an industry have a duty to support consumers in a better choice of low glycaemic food and drink options, through the use of ingredients that support a lower blood glucose response."