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Milena Melo has learned a lot about diabetes in the last six months. The University of Texas doctoral student has been following eight diabetics in the Rio Grande Valley, attempting to learn about access to healthcare in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.
"Sometimes my phone rings and it's someone asking me to take them to hospital because they can't breathe," Melo says. "They are so ill that they could die at any moment. Many of them never had access to medical care and discovered they had diabetes too late."
The Rio Grande Valley perfectly illustrates why diabetes is often called the silent killer. In the Valley, one in three people have the disease, but only half have received a formal diagnosis, according to the School of Public Health at the University of Texas. That’s twice the national average.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common, in which the pancreas continues to produce insulin even though the body is unable to use it effectively.
Statistically, Hispanics are twice as likely to die from diabetes than non-Hispanic whites.
Levels of poverty here are some of the highest in the country. Average household income is around $20,000, access to health care is low and the number of uninsured adults could reach 40% of the population. In addition, a significant percentage of the workforce is undocumented. This makes it very difficult for patients with kidney disease to receive dialysis or an organ transplant.
"Undocumented or uninsured people are dying or living extremely sick,” Melo told Univision. “In the case of undocumented workers, for example, the vast majority only have access to dialysis through emergency rooms when they are on the verge of death.”
Text: John Hubbell. Filming: Lance Murphey. Editing: Emily Hager and Lance Murphey.
Executive Producers: Almudena Toral and Eulimar Núñez.