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Behind the headlines: rise in cases of type 1 in children since COVID-19

Our research communications team analyse the findings and outline the possible reasons for the trend.
7 July 2023

A graphic of the COVID-19 virus.

You may be aware of a recent study published in JAMA Network Open journal which highlighted a significant increase in the number of young people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here, we unpick the report behind these headlines and seek to shed light on the possible factors contributing to this trend.

What was the research about?

The study was a meta review, which is a piece of research combining and analysing trends and findings from several different research papers. This review focuses on the significant rise in the number of children and teenagers worldwide diagnosed with type 1 diabetes since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Researchers collected data from multiple countries, including the UK, and analysed information from nearly 40,000 young people diagnosed with type 1 during the pandemic. They describe the increase in cases of type 1 as “substantial”.

What exactly did the review find?

The review study found that during the first year of the pandemic, there was a 14% rise in the rate of children diagnosed with type 1. Then, in the second year of the pandemic, the rate rose to 27%. Both percentages are compared to the years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even more concerning is that the review found an increase in people being diagnosed in diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) during the pandemic. DKA is a life-threatening condition where a severe lack of insulin means the blood becomes acidic, causing short- and long-term damage to the body.

Were rates of type 1 diabetes rising before the pandemic?

Before the pandemic, the rate of type 1 in children was increasing by around 3% per year. A previous review of 100s of research papers from 1990 – 2019 and found that rates of type 1 diabetes in all ages were on the rise. This study also suggested there could be an increase of DKA, which was confirmed by the latest research from during the pandemic.

Are there similar rises in adult cases?

While the most recent review specifically highlights the rise in paediatric cases, it does not provide details on the impact of the pandemic on adult cases. We need researchers to investigate the latest figures of type 1 diagnoses in adults to understand whether the rise in cases is restricted to children and young people.

What could be the reason for the rise in cases?

Alongside the research paper, JAMA published a commentary by Germany scientists on the possible reasons for the increase in cases of type 1. However, we need concrete research to understand the rising rates and put measures in place to lower them.

Researchers suggest the rise could be that, due to the lockdowns and increased hygiene measures, children weren’t exposed to germs that can help boost our immune systems. Another possibility is that cases were missed early in the pandemic during lockdowns, so we’re seeing a greater rise in cases due to a delay in diagnoses. The rise could also have something to do with the virus itself, but we need more research into this relationship.

What will researchers do now?

Before the pandemic, researchers were already trying to work out why rates of type 1 diabetes were increasing. They have been studying how the bacteria in our guts may be involved as well as a group of viruses called enteroviruses, which invade our bodies through our intestines. Researchers will continue their investigations and question whether factors that were already responsible for the increase were heightened during the pandemic.

What should I do if I’m worried about my risk of type 1?

It’s crucial for everyone to be aware of the common symptoms associated with type 1 diabetes. Keep an eye out for the 4 Ts: tiredness, thirst, toilet, thinner.

If you or your child experiences these symptoms, go to your doctor immediately. They can evaluate your condition, test your blood glucose levels, and provide the necessary treatment and support. Remember, early diagnosis and timely treatment can be lifesaving.

You can find out more about the signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes on our website.

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