What is diabetes?

In order to effectively deal with children with diabetes in a classroom setting, teachers need to understand what diabetes is, and what symptoms to look for.

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong disorder in which the body can no longer produce enough insulin from the pancreas to keep blood sugar (glucose) levels in the normal range. Type 2 diabetes, much less common in children and teenagers, occurs when the body either does not respond properly to its available insulin and does not produce enough insulin of its own.

In type 1 diabetes, insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are completely or partly destroyed. If there is too little insulin in the blood, the body's cells can't absorb glucose (sugar). When this happens, the cells "starve" and the level of glucose in the blood is constantly too high.

This is called "hyperglycemia" which means "too much glucose in the blood".

Treatment for type 1 diabetes (previously called insulin dependent diabetes, childhood or juvenile diabetes) involves daily injections of insulin.

A lifelong disease

Type 1 diabetes usually first appears in children and young people. No one knows why the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are destroyed in some people and not others. Once the insulin-producing cells are destroyed, there is no way to revive them.

Diabetes is not contagious in any way, nor does it occur because the child or parents did something "wrong". Other children in the class should be reassured that they will not "catch" diabetes from their classmate who has it.

Even though there is no cure at present, diabetes can be controlled through appropriate diet, exercise, insulin injections and blood sugar measurements.

Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition: good treatment starts at the time of diagnosis and continues for the rest of the person's life.

Increasing prevalence of diabetes

In recent years there has been a steady increase in the incidence of type 1 diabetes, particularly in the under 5 years age group. The reason for this is not known, but it appears that a number of environmental factors may contribute to the onset of type 1 diabetes in a child who is genetically predisposed.

There has also been a recent increase in the incidence of type 2 diabetes in adolescents from high risk population groups. These include people of African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native/Indigenous origin.