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Can children also be diagnosed with diabetes?

Dear Dr Ombeva,

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My sister’s seven-year-old son was diagnosed with diabetes. This has puzzled us, because we thought diabetes is a disease of adults. How possible is it that a child has diabetes?

Answer

Thank you so much for your question. While diabetes is a common disease of adults, it is increasingly becoming a common disease among children. Diabetes is actually one of the most common chronic diseases among children. It follows problems with handling of sugar in the body. There are two types of diabetes, Type 1 and Type 2. When diabetes strikes during childhood, it is routinely assumed to be Type 1, or juvenile-onset, diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes develops when the body’s immune system destroys the cells of the pancreas, an organ that produces the hormone called insulin which usually regulates blood sugar. In rare cases, a few kids can have Type 2 diabetes, and it begins when the body develops a resistance to insulin and no longer uses the insulin properly. As the need for insulin rises, the pancreas gradually loses its ability to produce sufficient amounts of insulin to regulate blood sugar.

The symptoms of diabetes include excessive thirst, weight loss, tiredness and frequent urination, abdominal pain and headache. Most children with diabetes need insulin treatment. Diet restrictions, activity levels and compliance with instructions are challenges in managing a child with diabetes. As a parent to a diabetic child, you need to learn how to administer insulin injections. Also, learn the symptoms of low blood glucose and how to treat them.

Always ensure that both insulin and glucose are always available. Measure blood glucose levels and teach your child how to do it. Teach your child how to self-administer insulin injections as soon as they are old enough. It is important to give your child a healthy balanced diet that is high in fibre and carbohydrates.

Physical activity is important for children with diabetes -- they should try to exercise every day. Physical activity lowers the blood sugar level, so if your child takes insulin, he/she may need to reduce the dose. Physical activity also affects how much your child can eat. Before your child exercises or takes part in any sport, give him/ her extra bread, juice or other carbohydrates.

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Dr Ombeva Malande is a paediatrics and child health expert

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