Almost two million people in the UK have diabetes but as many as half don't know it. Health Correspondent Barry Nelson takes a closer look at a growing but avoidable crisis.

EDDIE Cusack fears for the future when he looks around at the other people at his regular diabetes clinic. At 70, Eddie is pretty philosophical about developing type two diabetes, a condition which has traditionally been associated with getting older. As long as he is sensible about his diet and takes regular exercise, he should be able to control a serious illness which is potentially life-threatening.

But it is the growing number of younger people he sees when he has his check-ups that causes him concern.

"You can understand getting diabetes at my age, my wife has it as well, but it is worrying that I see people in their 40s, people half my age, in the clinic," says Eddie, who lives in Blaydon, Tyne and Wear, with his wife Kathleen, 67, who has daily insulin injections to control her type two diabetes.

In Kathleen's case, the condition has damaged the nerves in her legs to such an extent that she now needs a wheelchair when the couple go out.

"A lot of these younger people we see in the clinic are very overweight," says Eddie.

Linda Wood, manager of the North-East and Yorkshire regional branch of Diabetes UK, says Eddie is right to be worried. Recently, new figures were released which showed that the region now has a record number of people with diabetes - 229,000 - and the upward curve shows no sign of slackening off.

What worries Linda is the growing number of people in their 30s and 40s who are developing type two diabetes, a condition which used to be known as "maturity-onset" diabetes but which is now being seen in British children for the first time. Undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to major and life-threatening health problems.

"Many people are unaware that diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in people of working age in the UK. That is an horrendous statistic," says Linda.

There are even horror stories of diabetes leading to limb amputation. Poor diet and a lack of exercise has a lot to do with the region's woes, argues Linda. "A lot of people need to think seriously about their lifestyle before it's too late," she says.

Diabetes UK has calculated that diabetes affects nearly two million people in the UK - but almost one million don't even know they've got it. The rise in obesity in recent years has been accompanied by a huge increase in the number of people with type two which, unlike type one, develops gradually so can go unnoticed for a long time.

Left untreated, diabetes can cause heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, circulation problems, nerve damage, blindness and damage to the kidneys - so it's vital the condition is treated as early as possible.

The number of diabetics in the UK has gone up by 400,000 in the last eight years and now affects three per cent of the population, according to Diabetes UK.

''The number of people with diabetes is rising at an alarming rate. We cannot afford to wait until people have heart attacks or have problems with their sight or kidneys before they get the care they need," says Douglas Smallwood, chief executive of Diabetes UK.

''We now estimate there will be three million people with diabetes by 2010. This will place a huge strain on individuals and the NHS as diabetes can lead to serious complications. But if diabetes is diagnosed early and treated effectively, many of the worst effects can be avoided.''

While Linda Wood acknowledges that much good work is being done in the North-East and Yorkshire, she says there is an urgent need for more investment in services.

"We urgently need more foot specialists, or podiatrists, and more dieticians. People who have been newly diagnosed with diabetes really need to see a dietician within six weeks. Some are not seen for many months," she says.

A simple urine test from your GP, sometimes followed by a blood test, is all that's needed to test for diabetes. In some instances, type two diabetes doesn't display any symptoms so regular tests are important, especially if you are in one of the ''at risk'' groups, which include the over-40s, those with a family history of the condition and anyone overweight. Black and Asian people are also at a higher risk of diabetes than other ethnic groups.

While people are often scared to be tested for a serious condition like diabetes, if it's controlled properly most diabetics lead perfectly normal lives - diabetic Sir Steve Redgrave certainly didn't let it stop him achieving anything.