Welcome to the "diabetes belt."
That's what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls the swath of Southern states and counties that have diabetes rates almost a third higher than the rest of the country. Georgia -- and Augusta -- show up as crimson on a map in which much of New England is pale yellow.
The numbers are similarly high for high blood pressure. No surprise, then, that Augusta has red zones on maps for kidney failure, since diabetes and high blood pressure are the two leading causes of kidney disease. Together, they account for two-thirds of all cases.
More sobering statistics: Georgia ranks fourth in the nation for deaths from kidney disease. This week alone, kidney disease will kill 35 Georgia residents. Here in the diabetes belt, unless we address the underlying causes of the majority of kidney disease cases, these numbers will get worse, not better.
Kidney disease and kidney failure in Augusta create an ever-growing challenge for nephrologists, dialysis nurses and others involved in treating a disease that carries an annual taxpayer price tag of more than $1 billion in Georgia. That doesn't include lost productivity, employer insurance costs or out-of-pocket expenses, or the immense physical and emotional toll it takes on patients and their caregivers.
AS A NEPHROLOGIST, I see patients toward the end of the progression of kidney disease, often after their kidneys have failed. In fact, most of my patients did not even know they had kidney disease until their kidneys were irreversibly damaged.
Kidney disease sometimes develops so slowly that many patients do not realize they are sick until they are rushed to the hospital for life-saving dialysis. Once a patient's kidneys have failed, dialysis or a kidney transplant are the only options to keep him or her alive.
If there's any good news among all the dire statistics, it's that kidney disease is largely preventable and it is within our power to reverse the trend. Early detection and treatment of chronic kidney disease is the key.
Both diabetes and high blood pressure can be readily diagnosed and treated with medication and lifestyle changes. By keeping these underlying medical conditions under control, we can prevent or slow the onset of chronic kidney disease and kidney failure.
Anyone who is diabetic, has high blood pressure or has a close family member with kidney disease should be tested for chronic kidney disease. Others at risk for kidney disease -- people older than 60, racial minorities and anyone with HIV -- should be tested as well. In the fight against kidney disease, knowledge is power.
ON SATURDAY, the nonprofit American Kidney Fund is holding a Kidney Action Day in Augusta, providing free kidney health screenings, health education, and fun family activities. The American Kidney Fund leads the nation in providing charitable assistance to dialysis patients who need help with the costs associated with treating kidney failure. Last year, 101,000 people -- one out of every four U.S. dialysis patients -- received assistance from the American Kidney Fund for health-insurance premiums and other treatment-related expenses.
These screenings can be a life-saver for many area residents who do not have regular access to health care or who are unaware of their risk for kidney disease. The tests are simple and they take only about 15 minutes.
My hope is that Kidney Action Day will help hundreds of Augustans avoid the need for dialysis in the future. That's a statistic we can all live with.
(The writer is an Augusta nephrologist. Kidney Action Day will be Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, 1260 Wrightsboro Rd. The event is free and open to the public.)