Fatima Bakershoom, 15, is like any other teenage girl. Interested in fashion, she studies hard at school, mucks about with her three siblings and dreams about her future. But, unlike most teenagers, Fatima’s daily routine is a strict regime that requires her to test her blood sugar levels, monitor her diet and inject herself with life-saving insulin.
‘I found out I had diabetes when I was 10,’ she says matter-of-factly, going on to describe her initial symptoms, which included extreme thirst, frequent trips to the bathroom, overwhelming tiredness and sudden weight loss. ‘At first nobody knew what was wrong with me. The doctor thought I had a urine infection and prescribed antibiotics. But when that didn’t work, my mum took me to another clinic where they tested my blood sugar levels and they realised I was diabetic.’
Fatima’s blood sugar reading registered at 800 – more than 700 points higher than a healthy person’s. ‘From that moment on, I’ve had to manage my insulin levels,’ says Fatima, who has type one diabetes, caused by hereditary factors or auto-immune problems. ‘I have to be careful with food. I’m not allowed to eat much pasta, rice, French fries, or bread or anything that has a high starch content, although I do treat myself to the odd sweet thing.’
Her mother, Haleema was so shocked by Fatima’s diagnosis that she fainted. ‘No one in my family has diabetes and Fatima has always been thin and active. She doesn’t even like sugary foods,’ she says. ‘I know there is nothing we could have done to prevent this happening to her. It’s just bad luck that she got it – and now we have to live with it as best we can.’
But not all cases are down to bad luck. In many instances, diabetes can be prevented. The number of youngsters suffering from the disease in the UAE is rising steadily, paralleling the epidemic of childhood obesity here and in Western societies. According to the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC), the UAE has the world’s second highest number of diabetes cases per capita, and type two juvenile diabetes – caused by an unhealthy lifestyle – makes up a third of new cases.
Susan Jacobs, a registered nurse who runs the Diabetic Clinic at Dubai Hospital, says, ‘You expect older people to suffer from diabetes, but when a child gets type two because they have a poor lifestyle, it’s tragic. Diabetes is a disease that affects you for the rest of your life. There are ways you can manage it but, once you have it, there’s no cure.’
The two types may have different root causes, but the consequences – circulation problems, deteriorating eyesight, damage to internal organs and even brain damage – are the same. Kids who suffer from diabetes often feel left out – they can’t join in vigorous games, they have to show restraint around birthday cakes and other treats and they feel ‘different’ to their friends.
Dr Leila Kaabi, a family medicine specialist from Dubai, knows only too well how difficult it can be to deal with juvenile diabetes. Her daughter Sara, now nine, is completely insulin dependent, and her type one diabetic condition is dangerously unstable.
‘It’s extremely stressful for parents – and very hard for kids to cope with,’ Dr Leila says. ‘We’ve been through some very tough times when Sara’s blood levels have dipped at night, and I’ve had to check her blood on an hourly basis to make sure she doesn’t slip into a coma. It’s exhausting for both of us and depressing for her, because she just wants to lead a normal life like other kids.’
Thankfully, Sara will soon be fitted with a digital insulin pump that will provide her with the exact amounts of insulin she needs and reduce her gruelling daily injection routine of five jabs a day.
Neither mum could have prevented their daughters from becoming ill. But other parents can. ‘The most important factor is a change of lifestyle,’ says Dr Leila. ‘Children need to eat healthier foods and do more exercise. It’s awful to think that a child could fall ill and suffer like Sara, when it’s all so very preventable.’
Susan adds, ‘A lot of the children who come to the clinic have type two diabetes, and all of them are overweight to some degree. Unfortunately, their diets and a general lack of exercise have contributed to – or perhaps even caused – the problem. Often, they will be prone to diabetes because there is a genetic weakness in their families. But that doesn’t mean they will automatically be affected by it. If parents know it’s in the family, they should take extra care with their kid’s health to help prevent them from developing it.’
According to the ICLDC’s Diabetes Knowledge Action programme (www.diabetesuae.ae), which raises awareness of the issue across the UAE, 80 per cent of type two cases are preventable if detected early on, simply by introducing a healthy diet and increasing physical activity.
Dr Leila, who is involved in a drive to raise awareness among the UAE’s local population, emphasises the importance of this: ‘I go into schools and give talks about healthy eating and what it’s really like to have diabetes, because, let’s face it, prevention will always be better than cure.’
See www.diabetesuae.ae for details of the ICLDC-led campaign. For support groups, clinics and weight management advice, contact the Diabetic Clinic, Dubai Hospital (04 219 5000), The Juvenile Diabetes Education Centre, Healthcare City (04 429 7430), Sweet Kidz Support Group, Al Wasl Hospital (04 219 3000) or Synergy Internal Medical Centre (04 348 5452).