An estimated 135 million people worldwide had diagnosed diabetes in 1995, and this number is expected to rise to at least 300 million by 2025. The number of people with diabetes will increase by 42% (from 51 to 72 million) in industrialized countries between 1995 and 2025 and by 170% (from 84 to 228 million) in industrializing countries. Several potentially modifiable risk factors are related to diabetes, including insulin resistance, obesity, physical inactivity and dietary factors. Diabetes may be preventable in high-risk groups, but results of ongoing clinical trials are pending. Several efficacious and economically acceptable treatment strategies are currently available (control of glycemia, blood pressure, lipids; early detection and treatment of retinopathy, nephropathy, foot-disease; use of aspirin and ACE inhibitors) to reduce the burden of diabetes complications. Diabetes is a major public health problem and is emerging as a pandemic. While prevention of diabetes may become possible in the future, there is considerable potential now to better utilize existing treatments to reduce diabetes complications. Many countries could benefit from research aimed at better understanding the reasons why existing treatments are under-used and how this can be changed.