By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - The number of people living with diabetes has soared to 366 million, and the disease kills one person every seven seconds, posing a "massive challenge" to healthcare systems worldwide, experts said on Tuesday.
The vast majority of those with the disease have Type 2 -- the kind linked to poor diet, obesity and lack of exercise -- and the problem is spreading as people in the developing world adopt more Western lifestyles.
Diabetics 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. Worldwide deaths from the disease are now running at 4.6 million a year.
The latest figures, unveiled at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) congress in Lisbon, underline the need for urgent action by governments at a U.N. meeting next week, according to top doctors in the field.
The high-level United Nations meeting in New York on September 19-20 -- only the second to focus on disease after one on AIDS in 2001 -- will consider what should be done to counter the growing problem of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including diabetes.
Food, drinks and tobacco companies are in the firing line for selling products linked to cancer, heart disease and diabetes, but health campaigners fear politicians may not set firm targets or provide funds for a decent fight.
The NCD Alliance, which groups 2,000 health organizations from around the world, argues that spending $9 billion a year on tobacco control, food advice and basic treatments would avert tens of millions of untimely deaths this decade.
Cash-strapped governments, however, have baulked at finding new money, though the cost of inaction may be even greater, with annual healthcare spending on diabetes alone now put at $465 billion.
The new figures on the prevalence and cost of diabetes are to be published in the fifth edition of the Diabetes Atlas, the authoritative guide to the disease issued by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF).
The previous edition in October 2009 had estimated the number of diabetics at 285 million for 2010, although a separate study published in the Lancet medical journal in June this year had already put the figure at a much higher 347 million.
"The IDF's latest Atlas data are proof indeed that diabetes is a massive challenge the world can no longer afford to ignore. In 2011 one person is dying from diabetes every seven seconds," said IDF President Jean Claude Mbanya.
Mbanya and EASD Vice-President Andrew Boulton said more research was needed into strengthening health systems around the world to deal with diabetes.
Many older classes of diabetes drugs are now available as cheap generics, but global drugmakers -- including Sanofi, Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk -- aim to introduce new classes of drugs that could further extend treatment options.
Global sales of diabetes medicines totaled $35 billion last year and could rise to as much as $48 billion by 2015, according to research firm IMS Health, driven by increased prevalence and treatment, especially in countries such as China, India, Mexico and Brazil.
(Editing by Will Waterman)