Child and teen diabetes surge due to the COVID pandemic

Researchers have observed an unusual increase in the number of children and teenagers worldwide being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study published in the JAMA Network Open Journal. The study compiled data from various countries, including the UK, encompassing over 38,000 young individuals diagnosed during the pandemic. The authors of the study characterise the surge in diabetes cases as “significant.”

While some of the rise in cases can be attributed to catch-up diagnoses resulting from backlogs and healthcare service disruptions during the pandemic, scientists assert that this does not explain all of the newly diagnosed cases. Prior to the pandemic, the incidence rate of childhood type 1 diabetes was already increasing at an annual rate of approximately 3%.

Key findings from the study include:

• A 14% increase in the rate of type 1 diabetes during the first year of the pandemic compared to pre-COVID levels

• A roughly 27% increase in the rate during the second year of the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic levels

Researchers from the University of Toronto emphasise the need for further investigation into the causes behind this rise. They suggest that the growing number of children and adolescents affected by type 1 diabetes may require additional resources and support, regardless of the underlying reasons.

Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which individuals must closely monitor their blood sugar levels and administer insulin since their bodies cannot regulate it automatically. It occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Although it can affect both children and adults, the exact causes of type 1 diabetes remain unclear, and there is currently no cure.

Experts propose several theories to explain the surge in type 1 diabetes cases. One hypothesis is that COVID-19 may trigger a reaction in some children that increases the risk of developing diabetes. However, not all studies investigating this autoimmune reaction, where the body attacks its own healthy cells, have found evidence supporting this theory.

Another hypothesis suggests that exposure to certain germs during childhood may provide protection against various conditions, including diabetes. Some scientists speculate that lockdowns and physical distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic may have limited children’s exposure to germs, potentially depriving them of this additional protective effect.