Health

Child diabetes 'is being missed'

  • 14 November 2012
  • From the section Health
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Image caption Being more sleepy than usual can be a sign of diabetes

Your child has a raging thirst and is rapidly losing weight. What could be behind it - it couldn't be diabetes - could it?

In this week's Scrubbing Up, Barbara Young, chief executive of Diabetes UK, says there needs to be more awareness of the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes, so it can be detected more quickly to prevent children from becoming seriously unwell.

The idea of rushing your child to hospital and then watching them fight for their life is the stuff of parents' nightmares.

Yet for hundreds of parents every year in the UK, that is the reality of a diagnosis for Type 1 diabetes.

Some children become so unwell that they fall unconscious and a small number even die.

This is horrendous enough, but what is really shocking is that the 500 children a year who become seriously ill with something called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) are doing so unnecessarily.

In Type 1 diabetes DKA happens due to the severe lack of insulin which upsets the body's normal chemical balance leading to the production of poisonous chemicals called ketones, the build-up of which can be fatal if left unchecked.

'A matter of days'

But Type 1 diabetes has some really obvious symptoms.

Children who develop it typically need to urinate a lot; are very thirsty; lose weight quickly; and feel very tired.

By picking up on all or any of these symptoms and getting a doctor to do a test, a parent can ensure their child starts getting treatment before DKA has a chance to develop.

That can happen in a matter of days.

Parents need to be aware of the dangers signs - the four Ts - Toilet, Thirsty, Tired and Thinner.

But that's only part of the picture.

One of the things that's most shocking about diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes is that in some cases parents do identify the symptoms and ask for a test but are told by their GP that it is probably just a virus or infection and that they should come back in a week if symptoms persist.

Sometimes, that decision to "watch and wait" results in children developing DKA and could even be fatal.

High glucose warning

So why are medical practitioners not diagnosing Type 1?

The first thing is that they might not be aware of the symptoms themselves.

Around 90% of parents don't know all the Ts, and it is likely that this lack of awareness also extends to healthcare professionals.

But perhaps it's more likely that Type 1 diabetes isn't at the forefront of their minds.

About 2,000 children a year are diagnosed with the condition, though when you divide that by the number of GPs in the UK, it is clear that many of them could go some years without seeing a case.

We will be working with healthcare professionals - particularly GPs, practice nurses, and accident and emergency staff - to ensure they take the precautionary approach of giving every child with any one of these symptoms a test for Type 1.

Then if that test shows that the child has abnormally high glucose levels, that child should be referred to a specialist paediatric diabetes team the same day, as any delay can result in DKA.

It is possible for us to help the hundreds of children with Type 1 diabetes - and help them avoid the trauma of DKA.

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