Medics concerned by lifestyle-caused
diabetes in children

Monday, December 19th, 2022 11:00 | By
Fast foods. PHOTO/Internet
Fast foods. PHOTO/Internet

When Catherine Andika’s son started falling sick frequently, her first thought was that her enemies had obviously bewitched her only child.

She then decided to “return fire with fire” by also seeking the services of a witch doctor only to later learn that her son was just ailing from a chronic disease identified as diabetes type 1.

Andika, a resident of Raila slums in Kibra says the problem started in 2019, when the boy was only seven years old.

“I would give him sugary drinks or snacks and immediately after taking it, his temperature would shoot up and he would become weak as his eyes turned yellow,” she says.

For a while, Andika thought her son was just suffering from a normal ailment and she would buy some pain killers to manage the pains.

The boy’s temperature would come down until he consumed something sugary again and the situation would get back to worse.

At the time, she had not identified sugary foods as the trigger and, therefore never stopped the boy from consuming processed and sugary foods and drinks.

“In the past, I thought diabetes was for the rich and we the poor were spared from this disease and, therefore even with the signs being so clear, it never crossed my mind that it might be what was ailing my child,” she says.

Andika says one of the signs, which was so clear was bed wetting, a problem he never had previously.

She says he would in some instances wet himself while playing or just sitting and at first, she would punish him for such a mistake.

To avoid being punished or being laughed at by his peers, he would lock himself inside the house to avoid being tempted to play with his friends.

But then his situation got worse when his legs started swelling and his body could turn yellowish while at the same time he lost weight.

At this point, Andika says she was sure her son was bewitched by her jealous neighbours back at her rural home.

“I then started visiting witch doctors seeking healing for my son. I was desperate and I could do anything for him. At that time, it had not hit me to take him to hospital,” she notes.

Then one time, a community health volunteer was making rounds in her area when they came across her sickly son and suggested that the boy might be suffering from diabetes or yellow fever and recommended that he be taken to Lang’ata Hospital.

The undiagnosed patients

Andika says the hospital confirmed that he was suffering from diabetes and placed him under medication.

He was further placed on a strict diet, which he had to follow so as to manage the condition.

“Maintaining such a diet is a big challenge for me considering the economic hardships in informal settlements. I always opt to forego eating, but ensure he has what is required for his meals,” she says.

Ideally, a person with diabetes including children should stay away from foods that directly impact the blood sugar levels such as milk, bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, candy or cakes since they contain carbohydrates.

For Andika, it has been a long journey accepting her son’s condition, especially since no one in her family has a history of diabetes.

While she finally accepted the situation, thousands of parents are yet to learn their children status as two thirds of diabetes patients are not diagnosed, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

And with the current lifestyle where the majority of Kenyan children, especially in the urban spaces and even in rural areas consume unhealthy foods with little time to play or exercise, experts say there is a possible future crisis on the rise of diabetic children, despite the fact that majority of the current patients are of type 1 diabetes, which is genetic.

Lifestyle change

Dr Thomas Ngwiri, the head of clinical services at Gertrude’s children hospital says even though the country is staring at a looming crisis, there is still time and room to remedy the situation through change of lifestyle.

“About 5,000 children are on follow up for diabetes in Kenya and almost all have type 1 diabetes. However, with the current lifestyle a future rise of type 2 is eminent unless we arrest the situation right now,” he notes.

WHO categorises diabetes mellitus into; type 1, which is mostly genetic and type 2, which is caused by unhealthy lifestyles in children, especially those who are overweight and have certain lifestyles such as being sedentary.

According to Dr Ngwiri, children present with diabetes, but the Northern Eastern counties like Garissa appear to have slightly higher numbers and the main cause for this is thought to be genetic.

The doctor says diabetes type 1 is more prevalent among pre-schoolers aged between three and six years old and in teenagers although children from all age groups can get diabetes.

For type 1, the disease progresses quite rapidly and signs will appear within two to three months of developing diabetes.

Parents, especially those who have a history of diabetes in their families are urged to watch out for symptoms such as weight loss despite an insatiable appetite, excessive thirst, and excessive urination while in type 2, signs to watch out are experiencing excessive thirst and urination especially children who are typically overweight.

Dr Ngwiri says the majority of persons with type 2 will most of the time experience no symptoms at all.

A child with diabetes can eat any food that is cooked for the rest of the family and only avoid refined sugars (sodas, biscuits, cakes, sweets).

 Government Interventions

According to the WHO, the prevalence of diabetes in Kenya is at 3.3 percent and projects a rise to 4.5 per cent by 2025.

Due to lack of awareness, two thirds of diabetic patients are undiagnosed, proving a difficult task for the health ministry’s progress towards fighting and possible eradicating diabetes.

Research shows there is a challenge in diagnosis, management and monitoring of diabetes in children and young adults, therefore interventions need to be put in place to progress the disease among these target age sets.

Failure of early diagnosis can lead to long term complications of diabetes, which includes damage to the eyes, kidneys and nerves.

These complications can, however be reduced by controlling diabetes by adhering to treatment and the strict dieting.

Health CS Susan Wafula says children and adolescents living with diabetes bear the brunt of the condition, especially since the majority of them are not under medication.

According to the CS, only 40 per cent of people diagnosed with diabetes are currently under diabetes medication.

“It is with this regard that the ministry, county government and other partners will be implementing a programme dubbed changing diabetes in children. The programme aims at ensuring Kenyans below 25 years living with diabetes access insulin, blood glucose monitoring equipment, syringes and other supplies,” she says.

The programme is aimed at reaching out to 3,800 children across 37 counties with its main target is to reach all children living with diabetes in the country as a way of ensuring they live a quality life, free of diabetes complications.

The ministry will also be working to establish diabetes clinics at Kenyatta National Hospital, Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, Nakuru PHG, Machakos County Referral Hospital, Coast General Hospital and Kakamega County Referral Hospital.

With these centres in place, diabetic patients and also the undiagnosed will have access to quality diabetes prevention, screening, diagnosis and care.

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