Children and young adults are as much at risk as older adults
Johannesburg-It is a common misconception that diabetes is an illness which affects only older adults, but the fact is that children and young adults are increasingly at risk of developing the disease, especially in Africa.
This is largely due to the rapid urbanisation taking place on the continent, and the resulting westernisation of both diet and lifestyle.
And, as the general belief that diabetes can only affect older adults persists, many cases in children and younger people - including expectant mothers - remain undiagnosed, leading to a delay in treatment and to the development of dangerous complications.
The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) estimates that 12.1 million people are living with diabetes in Africa, but that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The rate of undiagnosed diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean islands is estimated to be particularly high, with between 70% and 85% of cases going undiagnosed in countries as diverse as Ghana, South Africa and Tanzania.
Mamorongwe Rantsieng, who lives in Soweto, is just one of the millions of people in Africa living with the illness. Now 26 years old, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of five, and has been living with it ever since. She considers herself one of the lucky ones, as her condition was diagnosed early and insulin treatment has enabled her to lead a normal, healthy life.
“Of course, I didn’t realise the implications at first,” she says, “but from around the age of 13, I realised I would need to take control over my illness if I wanted to fulfil my career goals and follow my dreams.”
Mamorongwe, who needs to inject insulin four times a day, receives treatment and medication from the Chris Hani Baragwaneth Hospital in Soweto. She pays a small surcharge for the treatment, but says she is always supplied with more than enough insulin to meet her needs and even to tide her over in case she experiences a delay in making her monthly appointment.
Asked what she believes the general experience of the illness in her community is, she replies: “The biggest problem with this illness in our community is the lack of education about the symptoms, the causes and the treatment.
This means many people don’t realise they have it, and both their quality of life and lifespan are affected.”
On-going support for people suffering from diabetes is also a problem, she says.
“I was able to attend a very helpful three-day diabetes camp recently, which was sponsored by a local pharmaceutical company. Both long-term sufferers and newly-diagnosed sufferers were given information about the illness, and had the chance to share their experiences with others in the same situation.”
These camps are few and far between, though, and sponsorship for more camps like these is desperately needed, as the rate of diabetes in both South Africa and the rest of Africa is climbing at an alarming rate.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, diabetes was rare in Africa,” says the African Region Chair of the IDF, Silver Bahendeka, “but now it is nothing short of a silent epidemic, and we are appealing to parents and young people to inform themselves of both the risk factors and the early warning signs of the disease.”
The first fact they need to be aware of is that there are two types of diabetes, simply known as Type 1 and Type 2. The first typically occurs early, and in individuals where there is a family history of diabetes.
The second, also called adult-onset diabetes was, until recently, only seen in adults of 35 or older, but is now becoming more common in children and young adults. This kind of diabetes occurs when the body becomes insulin resistant or, in other words, when it ceases responding efficiently to the insulin the pancreas is producing.
While family history is also a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, this type most often occurs in people who are overweight or obese, and who engage in little or no physical activity.
Symptoms to look out for in both cases include feelings of tiredness, frequent urination, unexplained weight loss, extreme thirst and unusually intense hunger.
“If your child has two or more of these symptoms and is overweight or obese, it is essential to have him or her checked for diabetes,” says Bahendeka. “This is especially important if you are of African or Asian origin, or if the child is experiencing bed wetting after the appropriate developmental stage.”
“Luckily, if diagnosed early, diabetes is highly treatable, and children and teens with diabetes can live normal, long lives.”