Media worldwide continue churning out reports and ringing multiple warning bells over the rising tide of young and younger patients with diabetes. A recent study, carried out by the Asian Diabetes Foundation on type-2 diabetes across nine Asian territories, identified Singapore with the highest proportion of younger patients. Three in 10 Singaporeans were diagnosed with diabetes before age 40. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also indicated that the number of children developing diabetes is increasing with time. In particular, type-2 diabetes, which was previously only observed in adults, is increasing affecting children in recent times.

Both types of diabetes on the rise in children

Type 1 diabetes, which is still something of a mystery, is a condition in which the body is unable to produce and regulate insulin. Most cases of type 1 diabetes are attributed to genetics and environmental factors, and currently there is no cure for this type of diabetes. Many countries have reported higher occurrence of type 1 diabetes in younger children, and in some countries the disease patterns for type 1 diabetes in children resemble epidemics of infectious disease.

On the other hand, type 2 diabetes is a condition which insulin produced by the body cannot be used effectively, and some causes are obesity, physical inactivity and sometimes genetics. Gestational diabetes, which is a condition that affects the mother and the child in the womb during pregnancy temporarily, is also becoming a signifier for the development of diabetes in later life. Increasingly, more and more children exclusively develop type 2 diabetes as a result of poor diet and lifestyle choices, and has even become the main type of diabetes diagnosed for children in some countries.

Managing diabetes in children

Once called the rich man’s disease, children as young as five have been diagnosed with diabetes and the management of their condition is an important component of their lives. The endocrinology department at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital has paediatric and adolescent diabetes programmes to meet the needs of and educate these young patients with the metabolic disease. These children are taught how to use insulin pump therapy effectively so as to achieve some freedom from the condition in their daily life. As these patients have to maintain and manage their condition throughout their lives, the transitioning from childhood to adult diabetic care is also part of the services and programmes at the hospital. The hospital’s endocrinology department also provide counselling services and educating children about the condition as part of the emotional support and management for diabetic children.

Other efforts undertaken by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital to reduce development of diabetes in children includes offering screenings for gestational diabetes in pregnant women. One in 10 pregnant women develops gestational diabetes, and early detection allows for earlier intervention. Researchers in National University Hospital (NUH) have also been studying a special drink that might help to prevent women from developing gestational diabetes during their pregnancy, thereby lowering risks of babies developing diabetes or becoming obese later in life.

Reduce obesity to curb development of diabetes in children

In Malaysia, 32.9% male and 24.7% female primary and secondary school students were indicated to be overweight respectively. Singapore also saw an increase of obesity in school children from 10% to 12% between 2000 and 2014. The WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity excepts number of obese children to hit an alarming 70 million by 2025. With obesity identified as one of the predominant factors behind type 2 diabetes, these developments all point to the possibility of further increase in number of young children diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. As such, countries worldwide have to step up on efforts to reduce childhood obesity and curb the alarming trend of increasingly younger diabetics. MIMS

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