The number of children with diabetes largely caused by obesity has soared 41 per cent in just three years, figures show.
Figures this year already showed a record 22,000 children are classed as severely obese, drastically increasing their risk of type 2 diabetes and serious complications including amputations, nerve damage and stroke.
Children with the condition are likely to have their lives shortened by a decade or more, Professor Naveed Sattar, an expert in metabolic medicine from the University of Glasgow, told The Independent.
“Their chances of getting serious complications in their lifetime will be far greater than an adult with type 2, because they will have that diabetes for several more decades,” he said.
“They will be more obese to begin with, their sugar control is worsening faster, and we don’t tend to give them statins at a young age to protect their hearts – we don’t want to give statins to kids.
“The fact these numbers are going up, though still relatively modest, it’s a disaster for society, the children and their families – and the medical profession.
“I can’t paint it any more bleak than that, it’s an unmitigated disaster.”
There is a lack of research on effective treatments for type 2 diabetes in children. But Prof Sattar says drastic interventions such as gastric band surgery have already been used in the US for children with the condition, and may become a reality in the UK.
Severe obesity – defined as having a body mass index of 40 or above – significantly increases the chances of dying prematurely from breast and colon cancers, heart disease and stroke, as well as diabetes.
Obesity has been dubbed “the new smoking” and is being fuelled around the world by the spread of cheap, high calorie convenience foods which are disproportionately found in the most socially deprived UK boroughs.
Rising childhood obesity means the NHS is grappling with the costs of treating chronic conditions and their complications, throughout patients’ entire adult lives – £1 in every £10 is already spent on diabetes.
The Local Government Association, which led the analysis, said efforts to counteract the harm of obesity are being undermined by £600m in cuts to public health budgets under the Conservatives.
Tam Fry, chair of the National Obesity Forum, agreed, adding councils were not given enough funding when they were first made responsible for public health, in 2011.
“When even this funding was cut and cut again, it inevitably ruled out any chance of success and the rise in childhood type 2 diabetes is a direct consequence,” he said. “It’s monstrous to consider but some of these children could be dead by the end of the decade.”
The first case of type 2 diabetes in a UK child was recorded in 2000, but the 2016-17 National Paediatric Diabetes Audit (NPDA), released this summer, showed 715 children and young people now need specialist treatment.
Of that group, 429 of the patients were aged 15 to 19, 269 were 10 to 14, and 11 were aged five to nine – with some even younger.
That is a startling increase from the 507 cases recorded in the 2013-14 audit, and the condition was once only seen in adults aged over 40 – who still make up the majority of the 3.2 million type 2 diabetics in the UK.
And despite the grim warnings, we still “may not be seeing the full picture”.
“[The NPDA] only captures data from paediatric diabetes units in England and Wales, and doesn’t account for children and young people seen in primary care, so there could potentially be more,” said Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which runs the audit.
Six of the 10 most deprived postcodes in the UK are in Scotland, which also has higher rates of morbid obesity than England and Wales.
“These figures are a sad indictment of how we have collectively failed as a society to tackle childhood obesity, one of the biggest health challenges we face,” said Councillor Izzi Seccombe chair of the LGA’s community wellbeing board.
“Cutting [councils’] public health funding is short sighted and undermines any attempt to help our children live healthy and fulfilling lives,” she said.
Government interventions in the past year, including the introduction of a sugar tax on sweetened drinks and pledges to improve calorie labelling and help families eat more healthily, have been welcomed.
But campaign groups say plans are not bold or ambitious enough to counteract obesity, adding the National Diabetes Prevention Plan is unlikely to meet its aim of cutting type 2 within a decade.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We know the damage obesity causes and are determined to halve childhood obesity by 2030.
“We’ve invested billions in public health services and have already removed the equivalent of 45 million kilograms of sugar from soft drinks every year.
“Our new childhood obesity plan will now get children exercising more in schools and reduce their exposure to sugary and fatty foods.”
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