By Lorraine Price

Type 1 Diabetes is one of the most common chronic illnesses found in children. The CBC documentary, Sweet Dreams for Chiyo follows the Ehara family as they learn to cope with their daughter’s condition after she was diagnosed at the age of two.

About 1 in 300 Canadian children are living with the disease, and new diagnoses are on the rise globally for reasons still unknown. Despite being relatively common, few people know about it or how it differs from the better-known Type 2 Diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes Is Nothing Like Type 2 Diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) is very different from its more common cousin, Type 2.

T1D is an incurable autoimmune disease. Insulin is an essential hormone in the body, and no one can survive without it. Something triggers the person’s immune response to destroy the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, a little organ behind the stomach.

Until there is a cure, an individual living with T1D will always require external insulin.

The most common version of diabetes, Type 2, is caused by insulin resistance and accounts for 90-95% of cases. For some individuals living with Type 2 diabetes, a healthy lifestyle is enough to control their blood sugar levels, although many require additional medication and/or insulin.

In children and youth, almost all individuals living with diabetes have Type 1, although Type 2 Diabetes is on the rise in this group as well.

T1D Is Not Caused by Lifestyle

T1D is not caused by eating too much sugar or other poor lifestyle choices. Something, possibly a virus, sets off the immune system and causes it to turn against itself. No one knows yet if there is any way to prevent it.

Researchers do know that genes play a role; if a family member has T1D, you have a 1 in 20 chance of developing it, which is 15 times greater than the general population.

T1D Can Strike At Any Age

Formerly known as Juvenile Diabetes, T1D also affects adults over thirty.

New research shows that some adults are misdiagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and not treated with insulin to control their blood sugar levels. Adults with T1D cannot control their symptoms by diet and medication because they require insulin.

T1D Can Be Deadly

Both high and low blood sugar can be dangerous and lead to long-term complications or death.

Too little blood sugar — hypoglycemia — happens when too much insulin is taken, meals are missed or after increased physical activity. Symptoms include shaking, sweating, weakness and a rapid heartbeat. Untreated, it can lead to a seizure or unconsciousness and is thought to be the cause of “dead in bed syndrome.”

The opposite, too much blood sugar — hyperglycemia — can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis. Symptoms include increased thirst, frequent urination and high levels of sugar in the urine. The body runs out of insulin and cannot receive sugar for energy, so it begins to break down fat and muscle. Untreated it leads to coma and death.

Type 1 Diabetics are also at increased risk for severe long-term complications including heart disease, blindness, pregnancy complications, kidney failure and amputation.

According to the JDRF, the life expectancy of those with T1D is shortened by 15 years.

The key to staying healthy is managing blood sugar levels.

T1D Can Be Managed, With A Lot of Work

Insulin, although not a cure for diabetes, is an essential tool for managing blood sugar.

Insulin brings blood sugar down while glucose, carbohydrates and sugar bring blood sugar up. People with T1D balance these two things by monitoring their blood sugar up to 12 times a day, counting the carbs in everything they eat, and taking insulin by injection or through an insulin pump.

Other factors such as exercise, weather, hormones, emotions also affect blood sugar, making it difficult to keep blood sugars in a safe range. The disease needs to be managed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and requires constant vigilance.

Children often need more monitoring than adults as their blood sugar fluctuates more frequently and can easily spike up or plummet. In Canada, there is no overall policy for children with T1D in schools. Support for children varies significantly across the country. If children are not old enough to manage their care at school, many parents visit the school themselves, multiple times a day to check in.

Managing T1D Is Costly

Taking care of T1D requires many resources. People with the illness use numerous things — blood glucose test strips, insulin, lancets, ketone meters and testing strips, continuous glucose monitors, alcohol swabs, skin preparation products, insulin pens, syringes or insulin pumps — to get the insulin into their bodies.

Blood glucose test strips cost roughly 85 cents a-piece, and a child can quickly go through ten or more a day. That’s approximately $10 a day, every single day. Adults are required to purchase a pump, which can run as high as $7000.

Government coverage varies across the country, but no matter where you live, managing the illness costs a lot. In fact, Diabetes Canada says that 57% of people living with T1D say that they cannot afford the supplies they are prescribed.  It can be a burden, especially for low-income families.

In spite of the difficulties, a recent Diabetes Longevity Study found that Type 1 Diabetics are living longer than ever before. Vigilance in controlling their disease, along with better insulin, excellent health care and advances in technology are helping T1D patients thrive.

People with T1D can live full and exciting lives and achieve their dreams. People who live with T1D have climbed Mount Everest, run across Canada and competed in the Olympics, among other things!