According to the International Diabetes Federation Atlas, 977 children and teenagers below 18 years of age were diagnosed with diabetes in Malaysia. This continues a dangerous trend where Malaysia has the highest rate of diabetes in the Western Pacific region.
Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is the most common form of diabetes among children but can also occur at any age. It is an autoimmune condition where the patient’s immune system attacks its own cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. These patients typically require lifelong insulin replacement. Type 2 diabetes (T2D), on the other hand, is more common among adults. However, more children are being diagnosed with T2D, along with the rise of global childhood obesity.
Should We Be Concerned?
Absolutely. Malaysia has the highest rate of diabetes in the Western Pacific region and one of the highest globally. The national burden caused by diabetes is estimated to be 600 million USD annually. The prevalence of diabetes in Malaysia has increased by 68.3% from 2011 to 2019. A national survey report showed that 3.6 million adult Malaysians had diabetes, and an estimated 3.7 million were suspected to be undiagnosed. Diabetes is expected to affect 7 million adult Malaysians by 2025.
Diabetic Children Becoming More Common
Diabetic children face a higher chance of experiencing long-term diabetic complications. In fact, studies have shown that teens and young adults with diabetes suffer from a 15-year drop in life expectancy. According to the National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2017, 7 out of 10 children skip breakfast regularly, leading to unhealthy eating habits and, ultimately, obesity.
Seeking Medical Attention
Diabetic children tend to experience increased thirst, increased appetite, increased frequency of urination, bedwetting in a previously toilet-trained child, unexplained lethargy and weight loss. Any child with these symptoms should get checked by a doctor. Regular checkups with a paediatrician help detect the issue early and or even prevent it from happening in the first place. A single finger prick test could save the child from a future of chronic diabetic complications.
Increased Risk For Cardiovascular Disease
Children with diabetes have a higher chance of developing heart disease. There is an existing misconception regarding T1D being more severe than T2D. It is important to note that cardiovascular complications are seen more in T2D. Diabetic children and teenagers may develop atherosclerosis earlier in life. Atherosclerosis narrows arteries, making it harder for blood to flow to vital organs. This occurs due to the build-up of fatty plaques in the inner wall of the arteries.
Dr Jeanne Wong Sze Lynn, a consultant paediatric endocrinologist, has some pointers on managing the risk of heart disease among diabetic children. She states that there are some serious complications involved and advises to be on the lookout for them. These include:
- High cholesterol levels
- High blood pressure
- Diabetic kidney disease
She also advised that practising a balanced and healthy lifestyle can go a long way in managing diabetic children. A healthy routine involving nutrition, exercise and rest can mitigate the effects of diabetes in children.
She also warned against smoking and vaping. Nicotine has been known to raise blood sugar levels, contributing to cancers besides heart and lung disease. Poor sleep can raise blood sugar levels and increase the risk of obesity, making quality sleep an essential factor in managing childhood diabetes.
Exercise is important as well. Overweight children are advised to start with low-intensity exercises before gradually moving on to regular exercise. Limiting the amount of screen time daily can also help the child be more active and less sedentary.
Heart disease among diabetic children can be prevented or mitigated with early detection and prompt intervention. Besides improving blood sugar control, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising and getting enough quality sleep, compliance to treatment, and regular follow-ups with a paediatric endocrinologist can improve the quality of a diabetic child’s life.