Diabetes is a disease which currently affects over 350 million people worldwide. It is estimated that 70 000 new cases of diabetes are diagnosed in children under the age of fifteen every year. Statistics like this cannot be ignored since diabetes causes serious damage to the body. Nerve and blood vessel damage affects vital organs such as the kidneys, heart and eyes. It is a condition that each and every parent should be aware of since early detection and treatment is the key to containing damage to the body.
What is diabetes?
Firstly it is important to understand that there are two types of diabetes. Once we understand this we, as parents are better equipped to deal with the crisis.
A) Type 1 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes is also known as juvenile-onset diabetes mellitus and insulin-dependent diabetes. It is a condition in which your child’s body stops producing a vital hormone known as insulin.
Insulin is a hormone which regulates the amount of glucose in the bloodstream and allows cells to use glucose for energy. Without insulin, the glucose stays in the bloodstream where it can cause life-threatening complications. In all cases of diabetes type 1, the child has to be given insulin to aid the body in regulating the glucose levels in the blood. This is a lifelong commitment and a process that requires constant monitoring.
What causes diabetes type 1?
The causes are largely unknown. What we do know is that the body’s immune system begins to destroy the insulin producing cells, known as islets. These cells are found in the pancreas. Where the immune system would usually fight harmful bacteria and viruses, a child suffering from type 1 diabetes has their immune system mistakenly destroying the insulin producing cells in the pancreas. Simply put the pancreas stops producing insulin altogether or produces insufficient amounts to be effective
As stated above, the reasons for this autoimmune response to the pancreas is not fully understood. Genetics does play a role. In families where grandparents or parents have diabetes, one may find that the condition moves down to the next generation. Diabetes type 1 may also follow a viral infection such as rubella (German measles), mumps, influenza, encephalitis and so on.
When does it commonly occur?
The condition can set in very early although it is most commonly diagnosed in children around 14 years of age. There are, however cases as young as three months of age. This of course makes early detection very difficult as some of the signs like excessive urinating and sleepiness are not easily noticed in a baby wearing a nappy or who takes regular naps during the day.
Can we as parents prevent diabetes type 1?
Type 1 diabetes is a condition which is largely out of our hands as parents. We can however be vigilant if there is a family history of diabetes. Following the vaccination schedule, which aids in preventing many childhood illnesses may just be another building block which prevents the autoimmune response responsible for diabetes. Knowing the signs of diabetes and acting quickly to get medical help if the signs do appear is critical to your child’s long-term health.
B) Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes used to be known as adult onset diabetes. It was almost unheard of in children but the statistics now show that about 23% of newly diagnosed cases are type 2 diabetes. In 2001 this figure was lower than 3%.
As a parent and a doctor this statistic breaks my heart. Type 2 diabetes should not be happening to our children. Just like type 1 diabetes it causes major damage to vital organs and has a profound effect on the quality of life of these children.
What are the causes?
Unlike type 1 diabetes, we as parents have a role to play in preventing type 2 diabetes in our children. While genetics does play a role, the major cause for type 2 diabetes is obesity and lack of activity. The food we give our children to eat and the tendency to allow our children to sit on the couch and watch TV or play on cell phones is making them chronically ill.
Around the world, obesity in children has more than tripled in a space of 30 years. Overweight children develop insulin resistance which causes the body to struggle to regulate the insulin it produces and this ultimately leads to high blood sugar levels. These high blood sugar levels are responsible for the damage to a young body. The frightening thing is that the symptoms develop gradually and are difficult to detect. This means that they have the potential to cause harm before we become aware of their presence.
What can be done about it?
When a child with type 2 diabetes is first diagnosed it may be necessary for the child to receive insulin. As the blood sugar levels drop the child may be weaned off insulin but a lifelong program of healthy eating, exercise and blood sugar monitoring is vital. Again this is where parents play a very significant role. Prevention of type 2 diabetes or the treatment thereof comes down to establishing healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle.
Signs that your child may have diabetes
The signs and symptoms of type 1 and type 2 diabetes are basically the same. Symptoms in type 1 diabetes may occur very quickly while type 2 is usually gradual. If your child presents with any of these symptoms, it is best to have them checked by your medical practitioner.
- Excessive thirst- The high levels of sugar in the bloodstream pulls fluids from the tissues and this makes the child very thirsty
- Increased urination- Since the child is drinking a lot more, they will need to urinate more. Added to this, the excessive sugar in the blood spills over into the urine and this is followed by water. The child will thus have to go to the toilet more often. In many cases children start bedwetting when they were previously dry.
- Increased appetite- Since the glucose is not reaching the muscles and organs a child may become unusually hungry. This is because the glucose is sitting in the bloodstream and not reaching the organs which require food.
- Tiredness- The glucose necessary to sustain energy levels is sitting in the bloodstream and not reaching the muscles. As a result your child will feel very tired.
- Weight loss- These children are suddenly eating a lot more food but because the energy is not reaching the organs and muscles, the fat stores and muscle stores shrink. This can happen fast and is often one of the first signs that your child my have diabetes.
- Fruity smell on the breath- This fruity smell is caused by ketones. The body begins burning fat for energy instead of sugar and this results in a fruity smell on the child’s breath.
- Blurred vision- The increased sugar levels in the bloodstream draws water from the lens of the eye resulting in blurred vision and a difficulty with focusing.
- Changes in behaviour and irritability- The lack of energy and extreme exhaustion often leads to poor performance at school and a general change in behaviour.
There are other signs such as yeast infections, darkened skin in the armpits, tummy pain and slow healing sores. Should any of the above signs be present then it is advisable to seek medical attention.
Diabetes is a disease with lifelong consequences. It is a disease which affects the body as a whole. The complications include heart damage, kidney damage, eye damage, osteoporosis and skin disorders. While diabetes type 1 is not something we can currently prevent, diabetes type 2 is largely a symptom of our modern society. We want to prevent our children from getting ill as a result of conditions such as diabetes. We need to develop healthy attitudes towards food and exercise. Healthy options are usually way more delicious than anything that could be presented in a cardboard box. Modern life is tough especially when both parents have to work but food needs to be the focus of family time. If food becomes your tradition, your celebration and something which brings the family together then food will become the key to healthy children. No parent closes their eyes at night before being grateful for healthy children. Building a positive attitude towards healthy eating and exercise will certainly help ensure our gratitude continues throughout their growing years.