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Decoding Diabetes

Local Experts Are Searching for a Cure To this Deadly Disease

November is American Diabetes Month. We hear that word a lot lately—diabetes—as we should. Diabetes affects 25.8 million children and adults in the United States. That’s 8.3 percent of the population, according the the American Diabetes Association.

What is diabetes? What is the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes? What are the symptoms and treatment options?

Diabetes is a disease in which the body doesn’t produce or properly use insulin. There are two main types of diabetes—Type 1 and Type 2. “Type 1 is usually diagnosed in children and young adults,” says Dr. Jin-Xiong She, director of the Center for Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Genomic Medicine at Georgia Health Sciences University (GHSU). “This is when the pancreas is no longer able to produce insulin, which is a hormone needed to turn sugar/glucose into energy that is needed to maintain life.”

Type 1 is not very common and affects only five percent of patients diagnosed. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form, affecting 90 percent of the people with diabetes. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or the body is not able to use the insulin it makes, according to Dr. She.

Dr. Rene Harper, associate professor of the GHSU Department of Medicine, section of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism, says the big problem with Type 2 diabetes is the resistance. “The insulin may be high, but it is not working right,” he says.

There are many symptoms of both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. The basic symptoms are:

1. Increased urine output.
2. Extreme thirst.
3. Extreme hunger.

People with Type 1 diabetes show these three symptoms more acutely and also may experience ailments such as stomach pain, vomiting and confusion, according to Dr. Harper.

Heather Armitage-Dunagan, RN, BSN, Certified Diabetes Educator and coordinator of Ambulatory Diabetes Education at GHSU, says that some additional signs of Type 1 diabetes are unusual weight loss and extreme fatigue.

Testing and Diagnosis

Augusta mom Mary Anne Franklin’s daughter, McNeill, was diagnosed last year with diabetes. “McNeill was diagnosed with Type 1 or juvenile diabetes at age 10½, the week she started fifth grade,” says Franklin. Franklin noticed that McNeill had a voracious appetite but was losing weight. “She was extremely thirsty and had to urinate frequently. She was lethargic,” adds Franklin. “Basically, she wasn’t acting like herself.”

It is extremely important to get tested for diabetes if you suspect you or your child has it. Type 1 diabetes usually manifests around puberty—between age 10 and 15—and 80 percent develop it before the age of 17. However, doctors are now seeing diabetes in chidren younger than this as well, says Dr. She.

Dr. Harper says it is easy to screen and that early detection helps reduce complications later. If you do test positive for diabetes at a screening, such as at a health fair, follow up with your doctor to do further testing and seek treatment.

The strongest prediction for Type 1 diabetes is family history and race. “A person with a first-degree relative (sibling or parent) has the highest risk as do Asians, followed by Hispanics, next African Americans and then Caucasians,” says Dr. Harper.

Research, Treatment and Complications

There is a plethora of diabetes research being performed today. Dr. She is involved in a clinical trial called “The Teddy Study” as GHSU. It is a 20-year research program that involves recognizing environmental determinants of diabetes in the young. There are only six clinical studies like this in the world and three of them are in the United States.

At this time, the study is monitoring approximately 9,000 children to see if they develop Type 1 diabetes. “By identifying the triggers, we think we should be able to come up with better and safer treatment strategies,” he says.

As for treatment options, insulin is always used for Type 1 diabetes. Franklin’s daughter McNeill is insulin-dependent and will be for the rest of her life. “She has to test her blood sugar roughly 10 times a day by pricking her finger,” says Franklin. “Before she eats, she has to count the amount of carbs she will be ingesting.” When first diagnosed, McNeill had to take insulin shots, but now she has an insulin pump, a small device that constantly delivers insulin into the body and gives larger doses before meals and snacks.

Treatment options for people with Type 2 diabetes include controlling their diet and exercising, says Armitage-Dunagan. Other treatments include taking oral agents (pills), insulin or a combination therapy including both pills and insulin.

There are many serious complications that go along with diabetes including vision problems, kidney issues and circulation problems that can cause damage to the feet.

Despite Franklin’s concerns about McNeill’s diagnosis, she takes an optimistic view and  says she is glad McNeill has a problem that has a solution. “If she tests her blood sugar regularly, correctly counts her carb intake and takes insulin, she feels good and healthy,” she says.

If your child has diabetes, Franklin suggests getting him or her involved in activities with other diabetic children. McNeill has enjoyed going to Camp Sweet Life and Camp Kudzu where she has met friends and learned ways to better treat her diabetes.

Armitage-Dunagan says that parents of a child who is diagnosed with diabetes should educate themselves, ask questions and involve their child in the everyday treatment of the disease. “But most of all, remember your child can still do and be anything he wants to be!” she says.

Cammie Jones is an Augusta freelance writer, wife and mother of three.

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