Updated 02 February 2017

Childhood diabetes up threefold

Managing diabetes in children is both more difficult and more easy than you might think.


If your child has type 1 diabetes, you might be feeling more than a little overwhelmed. Managing diabetes in children is both more difficult and more easy than you might think.

By Ilse Salzwedel for YOU Pulse magazine

Diabetes among children has increased threefold during the last 30 years. Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are on the increase but the majority of children suffer from type 1 diabetes where the pancreas doesn't produce a single drop of insulin.

Alarmingly, type 2 diabetes (caused by being overweight, a lack of physical activity and incorrect eating habits) is also on the increase among children and young adults. But medical experts are still scratching their heads about the increase in type 1 diabetes.

"Some children inherit a tendency to develop diabetes but it now seems as if a virus infection could trigger the destruction of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. A major shock could also bring it on sooner," explains Dr Jacobus van Dyk, a paediatric endocrinologist from Pretoria who heads a clinic for young diabetics.

Although the reason for the increase in type 1 diabetes among children is not clear, doctors agree with Professor Stuart Brink, clinical professor of paediatrics at the University of Boston, that proper control of insulin levels in children is of the utmost importance in order to prevent heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, blindness and amputation at a later stage in their lives.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition in which the pancreas produces no insulin (type 1 diabetes) or does not use the insulin effectively to transform sugar, starch and other foods into energy (type 2 diabetes). Without insulin, the diabetic will lapse into a coma and die.

The symptoms and tests

Have your child tested for diabetes if he regularly complains of stomach pains and headache, suddenly and inexplicably starts losing weight, presents behavioural problems or just wants to sleep in the middle of the day.

Also check his eyes: some children's pupils become enlarged while others develop red circles around their eyes. Sometimes they turn as pale as a sheet, as though all the blood has drained from their face.

The treatment

Diabetes is not a death sentence and can - also in children - be controlled through administering insulin, healthy eating plans and exercise, says Dr Jacobus van Dyk. "It doesn't mean they have to eat only dull and uninteresting foods but they do have to know how each kind of food will affect their blood sugar so they can adapt their insulin dosage."

Insulin pumps and pens

New technology, such as insulin pumps and pens, is making it easier to administer insulin. The insulin pump looks like a cellphone and is carried on the body except when you're swimming or having a bath. A small Teflon catheter is injected into the buttock or stomach, connecting the pump to the body. The pump contains a small computer which automatically releases a specific dose through the catheter into the body each hour in order to maintain a basic insulin level (known as "background insulin").

When the diabetic wants to eat or needs more insulin to correct his blood sugar level, he simply types his blood glucose level and/or the carbohydrate value of what he has eaten into the computer. It then calculates the amount of insulin required and administers it.

Where moms previously had to drive to school to inject their children, they can now simply note the carbohydrate content on the child's lunch box. "The child's blood sugar level is tested before lunch and after break the teacher helps calculate whether any extra insulin is required," explains Delene du Toit from Pretoria, the mother of a six-year-old diabetic child.

The catheter only needs to be replaced every third day, which means fewer needle pricks a day.

The insulin pen works on the same principle but Dr Jacobus van Dyk warns that these are only aids; the child still has to eat correctly and be aware of his insulin levels. After insulin, correct eating habits are the most important consideration for type 1 diabetics and are also vitally important for the treatment of type 2 diabetics.

The best way to control diabetes in children is by following a holistic approach: after diagnosis young patients and their parents are assisted by a multidisciplinary team consisting of a diabetes educator, dietician, play therapist and psychiatrist.

Take extra precautions

If your child does a lot of exercise he needs more insulin as insulin lowers the blood sugar level. But too much insulin with exercise may also lead to a dramatic drop in blood sugar.

Make sure your child has something sweet at hand. Also give him extra carbohydrates (such as bread or porridge) before he takes part in sport.

Parents of diabetics must always be on the lookout for symptoms such as nausea, a dry mouth, excessive thirst, excessive urination, stomach ache, quick and deep breathing, confusion and breath with a strong odour (not unlike ammonia or nail polish remover).

A common disease such as a cold can make your child's sugar level resistant to insulin and cause the kidneys to excrete ketones (poisonous waste products) - a condition known as keto-acidosis.

The child can even lose consciousness and will have to be taken to hospital. Test your child's ketone levels regularly to prevent keto-acidosis. You also need to be extra careful when your child is sick. Even a slight illness can cause complications.

Remember that over-the-counter medicines often contain a lot of sugar and alcohol, which can make a difference if taken regularly or in large quantities. Medicines containing ibuprofen are dangerous if your child has kidney problems.

Diabetic teenagers need to be even more aware than others of the health risks of alcohol because it will make them more susceptible to heart disease, poor circulation and low blood sugar that can lead to a coma. Watch out for signs of depression and eating disorders.

Parents' best advice

  • Your child's test kit must accompany him everywhere.
  • Build up a support system: experts, friends and family.
  • Involve the teachers and keep them informed of your child's condition.
  • Join a diabetes clinic or support group. They often have weekend camps to teach children to be independent and manage their disease by themselves.
  • Find a doctor who cares about his patients and is thoroughly informed about diabetes.
  • Make sure you have an emergency number for your child's doctor.
  • Involve other children in the family in the life of the diabetic child. It prevents them from feeling left out or neglected and they can also help prevent a crisis situation.

(This is an extract from an article that originally appeared in YOU Pulse / Huisgenoot-POLS magazine, Summer 2007. The current edition is on sale now.)


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Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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