Nova Scotia

Halifax doctor worried diabetes cases going undiagnosed in children amid COVID-19

A Halifax specialist says she's concerned that some children who may have recently developed Type 1 diabetes remain undiagnosed and untreated, possibly because their families are too scared to seek medical attention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just 1 case of Type 1 diabetes diagnosed at the IWK Health Centre in last 2 months

Some of the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes in children are weight loss, excessive thirst and wetting the bed. (Shutterstock)

A Halifax specialist says she's concerned that some children who may have recently developed Type 1 diabetes remain undiagnosed and untreated, possibly because their families are too scared to seek medical attention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Beth Cummings is a pediatric endocrinologist at the IWK Health Centre, which is the children's hospital for the Maritimes.

She said she's seen just one case in the last two months, when she would typically see as many as eight.

"I'm worried that they're going to be very sick and going to need to go to the [intensive care unit] or have complications and I don't want to see that," she said.

Cummings said she's been speaking with her colleagues across the country about this.

School closures is believed to be one of the reasons why so few diabetes cases have been diagnosed in children recently at the IWK Health Centre. (Kevin Mulcahy/Shutterstock )

"Some of them are seeing a drop and some of them haven't seen fewer patients, but they're seeing patients come in much sicker than they normally would," she said.

Cummings is the latest in a series of physicians who fear the pandemic is keeping people away from needed medical treatment. 

The IWK's emergency department has seen visits drop by more than half in the last two months. Family physicians have also seen appointments plunge and are trying to get the word out that they can still treat many conditions through virtual appointments.

Repeatedly, the message has been that waiting is far more dangerous than COVID-19 because health-care centres are taking extra precautions.

Cummings believes there's another factor behind the decrease in diabetes diagnoses: school closures.

"There might be some influence that kids aren't in school and catching infections from each other and then when you get a viral infection, that can sometimes tip the scale and diabetes becomes noticeable," she said.

Warning signs

Cummings is trying to ensure parents know the signs of Type 1 diabetes. Most commonly developed in school-age children or teenagers, the symptoms can be sudden and include weight loss, excessive thirst and wetting the bed.

"Usually about 90 per cent of people have no close family members with it, so it's often a surprise," she said. "This message needs to get out widely because we can't target it."

It took two years for Kimberley Hanson to be diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. By that time, she says she was nearly in a coma. (Submitted by Kimberley Hanson)

In some cases, Cummings said, it's teachers who notice the change in students when they repeatedly ask to use the washroom.

Kimberley Hanson, the executive director of Diabetes Canada, agrees that school closures could be playing a role.

"Teachers are often familiar with the signs of Type 1 [diabetes] in a way that the general public isn't," she said.

Hanson knows first-hand the problems that could arise without a diagnosis. She developed Type 1 diabetes when she was 20, but it took two years to be diagnosed.

"I was very nearly in a coma," she said. "My story isn't as unique as you'd imagine."

Hanson, who is based in Ottawa, said her diabetes is well-managed now that she has the proper care.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca

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