"It is practically impossible to go home to eat lunch now," said Dr. Gabriela Ortiz, a department director at the National Center for Preventative Health and Disease Control. "We ask for food to be delivered to our office. Some employees go out to the taco stands on the corner or to the street markets."
Since tap water is widely considered unsafe, and public drinking fountains rare, most Mexicans swill a sugary drink with their meals. The average Mexican consumes 728 8-ounce sugary drinks from Coca-Cola per year, an average of two a day, far more than the 403 eight-ounce drinks that are consumed per person annually in the United States.
"Coca-Cola is a great villain, but it is not the only one," Avila said, adding that some 30 of Mexico's 500 largest businesses produce snacks or other types of junk food, carbonated or sugary beverages. He said their total annual sales top $80 billion and their advertising and lobbying budgets easily trump public health campaigns.
A 2012 federal health and nutrition survey found that 64 percent of men and 82 percent of women in Mexico were overweight or obese. Obesity levels have tripled in the past three decades.
"I'm looking out my window," said Dr. Stan De Loach, an American-certified diabetes educator who has lived most his life in Mexico, "and I see two, three, four, seven, eight people out of maybe 20 people who are obese."
Mexico now has higher obesity rates among children ages 5 to 11 years than any other country. According to a 2012 health survey, 34.4 percent of children are obese, Ortiz said. The comparable figure in the United States is 16.9 percent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
"Diabetes 10 years ago was a problem mainly among people 55 years and older. But now we see cases even in young people 12 and 13 years old," said Reyes de Ortega of the Mexican Diabetes Association.
In Mexico, some 400,000 youth suffer from diabetes Type 1 (which requires insulin injections) or Type 2 (which is associated with obesity, inactivity and family history).
Amid worries about rising childhood obesity, lawmakers in 2010 limited the kinds and quantities of food and drinks that could be offered at public schools. But vendors still congregate outside school gates at the end of each day to peddle fried snacks, sweets and sodas.
"Why do they keep selling potato chips and ice cream at the school where my son goes?" asked Fabiola Balbuena Torres, a 31-year-old professional wrestler who goes by the ring name Faby Apache. Torres is one of scores of pro wrestlers taking part in "Fight Against Obesity," a program to encourage youngsters to consume healthy foods.
Many of the alarm bells sounding about diabetes and its long-term impact come from experts outside government.
"It's a bomb. It's an extremely urgent problem," Reyes de Ortega said.
Health Secretariat officials say the government will do what it can to treat diabetes-related illnesses, acknowledging that kidney dialysis eats up as much as half of the budget earmarked for diabetes.
But pledges of universal health coverage do not match reality.
"The health system in Mexico operates with smoke and mirrors," said Dr. Joel Rodriguez, a nephrologist. "If you have social security, they give you an appointment in eight months or a year. You end up going to a private clinic because you can't get in to see the doctor."
FACTS ON DIABETES IN MEXICO
According to Mexico's Secretariat of Health:
-Every hour, 38 new diabetes cases are confirmed.
-Some 70,000 people die from diabetes-related illness each year.
-Some 400,000 young people under age 15 suffer from diabetes Type 1 or Type 2.
-Of each 100 patients with diabetes, 14 will develop kidney failure of some degree.
-Of each five patients with diabetes, two will begin to suffer blindness.
-Over the last six years there were 482,654 diabetes deaths in Mexico. In the previous six-year period, there were about 270,000 diabetes-related deaths in the country.
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