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Diabetes awareness could save children's lives

Some 70,000 children develop type-one diabetes each year

More than 200 children around the world develop diabetes each day and many will die because parents do not know the warning signs or lack access to treatment.

Switzerland on Friday marked World Diabetes Day by bathing buildings and monuments from Geneva to St Gallen in blue light, to raise awareness of the disease.

"In the past few years some children aged two or three years were diagnosed with the disease very late," Dr Daniel Konrad, director of Zurich University's Department of Diabetes and Endocrinology, told swissinfo.

"They didn't die but had to be placed in intensive care. It's important to remember that even a small child can develop the disease."

Other children in less developed countries have not received the same medical attention. World Diabetes Day hopes to highlight their plight, as well as what can be done to improve nutrition, ensure healthy lifestyles and inform parents about the disease.

"People think diabetes is a touch of sugar, something that happens to old people. Well this is wrong," Phil Riley, campaign manager for World Diabetes Day, told swissinfo.

"We estimate some 73,000-75,000 children around the world are living with the disease in very desperate conditions. They will die if they can't get sustained access to insulin and the monitoring they need to survive."

Rates increasing

Though current figures on the disease in Switzerland are hard to come by, as no up-to-date database on the disease exists, the country did see an increase in type-one diabetes among youths during the 1990s.

Zurich University compiled figures from 1991-1999 on that form of the disease, which is genetic and cannot be prevented. In 1991, around eight out of 100,000 children aged 14 years old and younger developed that form of diabetes in Switzerland.

The rate peaked in 1996, when nearly 12 youths per 100,000 developed type-one diabetes.

"Increasingly we're seeing it in children - even toddlers and babies," said Riley, who developed type-one diabetes in his mid-20s.

"We're not too sure why, but the rate globally is increasing by about three per cent for children, and in toddlers, about five per cent each year."

Finland, Sweden and Norway have the highest rates for type-one diabetes in children in Europe, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

Warning signs

Riley says raising awareness about the disease is key, as early treatment can mean the difference between the life and death of a child.

The warning signs that a child could have diabetes include frequent bed-wetting or excessive urination and thirst. Increased hunger, weight loss, lethargy, poor concentration and blurred vision can all be signs. Often vomiting and stomach pain – two additional symptoms – can be mistaken for the flu.

"If you start to see this in your child, a child in your classroom or among your peers, you need to alert someone," he said. "The fight can begin with the simple step of letting parents know."

Lifestyle choices, such as eating healthy, balanced meals and getting plenty of exercise, can help keep type-two diabetes at bay. That's when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Studies suggest the onset of the disease could be linked to obesity.

"It's really important for children at a young age to move and get exercise. You can see the benefits 20, 30 years later," said Karl Scheidegger, a diabetologist from St Gallen.

"It's clear that someone who benefits from exercise throughout their whole life has a much better chance of not getting type-two diabetes but it's never too late to start."

Riley agrees and said community leaders need to take more responsibility for helping kids stay healthy.

"Schools and governments have to put policies in place to allow children to live healthy lives, get exercise and determine what foods are being served," he said.

"In this region of the world that we are privileged to live in diabetes can be managed, but so few people have a choice.

"Children living in a slum in Brazil have little choice about how to access calories or whether they can get exercise. In a European context we can do more."

swissinfo, Tim Neville

Diabetes epidemic

Every 10 seconds someone dies from diabetes-related causes
Every 10 seconds two more people develop the disease
Most countries with the highest rates of diabetes are in the developing world
By 2025, 80 per cent of all diabetes cases will be in low- and middle-income countries

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Diabetes, a disease that affects the way the body converts sugar into usable energy, is divided into two types.

Type 1 is an autoimmune disease whereby the body produces too little or no insulin, which is needed to convert sugar into energy. Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented and is the most common type that affects children. About 500,000 people under the age of 15 live with the disease.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body cannot use the insulin it produces. It has been reported in as children as young as 8. Studies have shown that individuals who lose 7-10 per cent of their body weight and exercise can stave off the onset of the disease.

Every year nearly 4 million people die from diabetes-related issues, such as kidney failure, heart problems and diabetic ketoacidosis – a build-up of excess acids in the body caused by uncontrolled diabetes.

The problem is greatly aggravated in developing countries where access to blood-sugar monitoring equipment and insulin injections are often limited.

In Zambia a child with type 1 diabetes lives on average 11 years. In Mali, it's 30 months. In Mozambique the child will likely die within a year.

Worldwide diabetes affects 246 million people. By 2025 that number will increase to 380 million. "This is happening on our watch," says Phil Riley, campaign manager for World Diabetes Day. "It is our responsibility to act."

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