Diabetes is a ‘Family Affair’
Ashleigh Williams is 9 years old. She has type 1 diabetes. While most children go about their daily activities relatively carefree, Ashleigh has to test herself up to six times a day and has to apply strict self-control when it comes to her eating habits.
World Diabetes Day will be commemorated on 14 November 2018 with the theme ‘The Family and Diabetes’. The aim is to raise awareness of the impact that diabetes has on the family and support network of those affected and promote the role of the family in the management, care, prevention, and education of diabetes.
“Ashleigh drank a lot of water, urinated a lot and lost weight,” says her mother, Petronella, when asked what her symptoms were. “She was 23 months old when she was diagnosed. I never knew children could get diabetes. We call it “suiker” and think it is only a disease for old people. I was shocked when we received the initial diagnosis and have since done a lot of research of my own to better equip me to assist Ashleigh.”
Diabetes was the fifth leading cause of death in the Western Cape, accounting for 25 229 deaths in 2016 (Statistics SA report Mortality and causes of death in South Africa, 2016: The ten leading underlying natural causes of death for males and females, 2016).
“As healthcare professionals, we are always there to walk this journey with people, but the family also plays a huge role in supporting the person with diabetes. Family members often help with ensuring that the medication is taken at the right time and they also help with testing the blood sugar, and can be a big help in helping to get the person with diabetes eating the right food, and exercising. The role of the family in the case of a young child with type 1 diabetes is even more taxing. Studies have shown that children with type 1 diabetes miss more school days than their siblings or peers, which means that a parent would have to miss work to stay home with a sick child. For both children and adults with diabetes, the role of the family in providing the necessary support is key for the successful management of diabetes,” says dietician Ashleigh Moolman.
“This year on World Diabetes Day, we are calling on those living with diabetes and the families who are supporting them, to ensure that they practice a healthy lifestyle. We are also encouraging people to get screened for diabetes. Many death and complications can be avoided. If this disease is adequately managed, you can live a healthy life. The Department has free testing available at all clinics when clients go for routine visits. Those with a strong family history of diabetes are often at risk of developing the disease,” says Minister Mbombo.
Ashleigh is an outgoing girl who does well in sport and likes to socialise with her friends. “It can be difficult at times, especially when I have to miss school because I am sick,” she says.
Petronella, who is a single parent, says, “2018 was a good year for us compared to 2017. We have a lot of support, and that means a great deal to us. My employer has been my rock and happens to be a GP. When Ashleigh was diagnosed, I did as much research as possible and have joined a WhatsApp group for parents of children with diabetes. Parents need all the support they can get.”
According to the International Diabetes Federation, approximately 20 million people in Africa have been diagnosed with diabetes compared to 382 million worldwide.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a condition where your body is unable to use the glucose from the food you eat. Glucose comes from food such as bread, cereal, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruit, and some vegetables. To use glucose, your body needs insulin, which is made by a gland in your body called the pancreas. Diabetes affects one’s metabolism, which can cause excessive urination and continuous thirst.
How serious is diabetes?
There is no such thing as 'mild' diabetes. Diabetes is always serious. If it is left untreated or is not well managed, the high levels of blood glucose associated with diabetes can slowly damage both the fine nerves and the small and large blood vessels in the body, resulting in a variety of complications. These include heart disease, blindness, amputation, kidney disease, and erectile dysfunction or impotence. The good news is that with careful management, these complications can be delayed and even prevented, but early diagnosis is very important.
Symptoms of diabetes:
- frequent urination
- excessive thirst
- increased hunger
- unusual weight loss
- lack of interest and concentration
- blurred vision
- frequent or recurring infections
- cuts and bruises that are slow to heal, boils and itching skin
- tingling and numbness in the hands or feet
- vomiting and stomach pain (often mistaken as the flu)
These symptoms may not all present together, which is why it is important to go for regular blood glucose testing.
Types of diabetes:
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas stops producing insulin. It usually starts in young people under the age of 30 years, including very young children and infants, and the onset is sudden and dramatic. People who have type 1 diabetes must inject insulin to survive. Insulin dosages are carefully balanced with food intake and exercise programmes.
Type 2 diabetes is caused when the insulin, which the pancreas produces, is either not enough or does not work properly. Approximately 85% to 90% of all people with diabetes are type 2, and many people who have this condition are undiagnosed.
Gestational diabetes is a temporary condition that occurs during pregnancy. Both mother and child have an increased risk of developing diabetes in the future.
How do you know if you have diabetes?
Early diagnosis of diabetes is extremely important to prevent complications. If you are over 35 and at risk to develop diabetes, you should be tested every year. A simple finger-prick test at your local pharmacy or clinic can diagnose the strong likelihood that you may have diabetes within a minute.
How is Diabetes treated?
Having diabetes need not mean the end of a normal, healthy life. People with diabetes need to first accept the fact that they have the condition and then learn how to manage it. This takes commitment and perseverance.
The goal of diabetes management is to bring blood glucose levels into the normal range, that is, between 4 mmol/l and 6 mmol/l. There are various aspects to good diabetes management:
- Education – Knowing about diabetes is an essential first step. All people with diabetes need to learn about their condition in order to make healthy lifestyle choices and manage their diabetes well.
- Healthy Eating – There is no such thing as a 'diabetic diet', only a healthy way of eating, which is recommended for everyone. However, what, when and how much you eat plays an important role in regulating how well your body manages blood glucose levels. It is a good idea to visit a registered dietician who will help you work out a meal plan, which is suitable to your particular lifestyle and needs.
- Exercise – Regular exercise helps your body lower blood glucose, promotes weight loss, reduces stress and enhances overall fitness and enjoyment of life.
- Weight Management – Maintaining a healthy weight is especially important in the control of type 2 diabetes. Make an appointment to see a registered dietician who will work out a meal plan to help you lose weight.
- Medication – People with type 1 diabetes require daily injections of insulin to survive. Type 2 diabetes is controlled through exercise and meal planning and may require diabetes tablets and/or insulin to assist the body in making or using insulin more effectively.
- Lifestyle Management – Learning to reduce stress levels in daily living can help people manage their blood glucose levels. Smoking is particularly dangerous for people with diabetes.
Principal Communications Officer
Western Cape Government Health