The number of children with type 2 diabetes has spiked alarmingly in the UK, with a reported 40 per cent increase in diagnoses in the past four years. The condition – occurring when the body can't produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar – is most commonly seen in adults and has been linked to poor diet and obesity.
Professor Russel Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which released the figures, said, "A rise in type 2 diabetes of this magnitude is alarming and shows that the childhood obesity epidemic is starting to bite."
Cheryl Steele, a credentialled diabetes educator, says that luckily, we're yet to see a sharp rise like this in Australia.
"Our figures don't reflect a rapid increase like they're seeing in the UK," she said. "The rate of diabetes in young people under 20 is only around 7 per cent. It's much lower, but of course still definitely a concern, given type 2 diabetes is usually preventable and is caused by an unhealthy lifestyle."
Cheryl says the reason for the disparity in rates of type 2 diabetes between our two countries isn't clear, but credits state government initiatives across the country with encouraging children to get plenty of regular exercise, and for tuckshops to eradicate unhealthy foods and offer a wide range of healthy choices.
"I think the push towards a healthy lifestyle has been more proactive here," she said. "State governments across the country have taken steps like encouraging team sports and requiring school tuckshops to ditch unhealthy choices and offer a range of more healthy lunch options.
"In our clinic at Sunshine Hospital in Melbourne, we see young people aged 15 to 25 with type 2 diabetes," says Cheryl. "They're usually overweight or obese and lead sedentary lifestyles."
Cheryl says it's important not to blame the children in this situation.
"It's challenging because a child is usually reliant on their parents to assist them in the way they live and eat," she says. "It's not the child that goes shopping or brings poor quality food into the household, but they often suffer the consequences of those poor choices. The last thing we should do is make them feel bad.
"The idea going around at the moment of weighing children at school is disastrous because all that will achieve is lowering children's self-esteem. That does nothing. What we need to be doing is educating the parents."
In order to prevent type 2 diabetes, Cheryl says parents can have a huge impact.
"First, and most importantly, I would say have healthy food choices available in the home at all times," she says. "Keep treat foods to a bare minimum, pack a healthy lunch for school, and encourage your child to participate in some form of sport.
"It's important to maintain a healthy weight and to be active."
Cheryl says for those children who have developed a taste for sweet treats, this addiction can be broken if you're determined.
"Research tells us it takes six weeks to switch our taste preference from sweet to savoury," says Cheryl. "So if you can take away those treats for six weeks and offer some healthy savoury foods instead, by the end of six weeks, the cravings should be gone."
Although it's not common in children, type 2 diabetes can occur. Early symptoms include lethargy, sleeping more but not feeling rested, cuts that are slow to heal or become infected, increased thirst and needing to urinate, and blurred vision. If you suspect your child might have type 2 diabetes, it can be easily tested for by your GP.
It's important to be tested as early as possible so treatment can begin, says Cheryl.
"The long-term prognosis for children with type 2 diabetes is not as positive as it is for those with type 1," she says. "Because symptoms are slower to develop and be detected, children are already developing complications before they've even been diagnosed.
"I see 16- to 18-year-olds who are already on blood pressure medication," she says. "And type 2 diabetes can lead to complications such as kidney disease and cardiovascular disease."
That's a high price to pay for a disease that can be stopped in its tracks by healthy food and exercise.
Cheryl says we're lucky in Australia not to be seeing the sharp rise in type 2 diabetes that the UK is, but that doesn't mean we should be complacent.
"It's not a tsunami yet," she says. "We don't need to be too concerned at this stage, but we do need to be aware that this is our opportunity to put in place healthy interventions before we are dealing with an epidemic."