The disease that's
stalking my children
by BBC newsman Justin Webb
By Justin Webb, BBC North America Editor
Last updated at 9:44 PM on 28th February 2009
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Sam, my eight-year-old son, had been feeling tired.
For a few nights running he had wet the bed, some-
thing he hadn't done for years. For the past few days
he'd been eating oddly large amounts and was con-
My wife Sarah was at work so I had offered to take
Sam for a check-up. I expected us to be home for
lunch. What happened next is still a blur in my mind.
A urine test for Sam quickly followed by a second.
Phone calls. The doctor looking worried. My wife
arriving at the surgery.
Type 1 diabetes. The words, introduced to our life,
introduced to Sam's life and the life of a carefree eight-
A coincidence: a few weeks before, I had been driving
with Sam in our open-top car on the Beltway, Washing-
ton's equivalent of the M25. We had seen an accident,
just yards in front of us.
We avoided it and the drivers appeared to emerge un-
scathed, but on the way home Sam and I had talked
about how life can change in the blink of an eye, and
not always for the better.
That afternoon Sam was admitted to Washington Chil-
dren's Hospital ...
Type 1 diabetes stalks my children, but in a sense it stalks
all families. In America, it is the most common serious
childhood ailment after asthma. In the UK there are 300,000
sufferers; the number of children under five developing it
has risen fivefold in the past 20 years.
Twice a day, Christmas included, Sam must have an injec-
tion of insulin. The injection must be precisely measured
and calibrated. So must every meal. So must the snack he
has to eat mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and at night before
Too much carbohydrate will send his blood-sugar level
dangerously high, too little and he could faint and, if un-
treated, go into a coma. The food must match the insulin
- get converted into energy - and not hang around as sugar
in the blood.
Nothing you do can give you type 1. It is autoimmune: Sam's
body, for reasons nobody understands, has turned on the
cells in his pancreas that make insulin, and destroyed them.
Insulin is vital to life - it's the hormone that turns the glucose
in our blood into usable energy. Without it we are full of use-
less sugar. We die. And until relatively recently that would
have been Sam's certain fate.
Until Leonard Thompson. Heard of him? Nor had I until a few
weeks ago, but I feel linked to him now and to his parents, par-
ticularly his father who carried the dying 14-year-old boy to a
doctor who thought he might be able to help.
This was in Toronto, on January 11, 1922. Until that day every
child who had contracted type 1 diabetes had died. Sometimes
it took days, sometimes months. But it happened. Leonard was
dying, but that day he was saved by two doctors, Frederick
Banting and Charles Best, who had just discovered insulin and
wanted to put it to work.
They injected him with their elixir and after a slight false start
- an allergic reaction necessitating a change to the medicine -
the dying boy got better. He lived 13 more years, not a full life-
time but a wonderful improvement on what went before.
And in what is generally accepted to have been one of the most
dramatic episodes in medical history, the doctors then went from
bed to bed in the Toronto hospital diabetes ward, and little chil-
dren about to die were saved. Parents who had said goodbye
took their children home.
I can't imagine the scene without crying. Banting and Best's legacy
lives on: they save my boy Sam every morning and every night.
But perhaps not for much longer.
The fact is that insulin is not a cure. Type 1 diabetes should be
capable of being cured. Perhaps something switched off in the
pancreas can be switched back on. Dead cells can be replaced.
And amazing strides have been taken towards that end.
Stem cells are probably the answer in the longer term, but there
is progress being made every day using currently available tech-
nology and know-how.
The British branch of the wonderfully active and focused Juve-
nile Diabetes Research Foundation (please give them all your
money!) has just this month granted funds for new research at
British universities, including an effort to shut down the immune
system malfunction that causes type 1.
So this is not a hopeless tale. And I am deeply aware that we
did bring Sam home in one piece, and with a realistic hope that
his life will not be blighted.
Not everyone we saw in that hospital just before Christmas will
have had that outcome. Plenty of children just like Sam - who
are unlucky enough to live in the undeveloped world - still die
as if Leonard Thompson had never lived.
I have a new Google Alert on my office computer: diabetes + cure.
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Justin Webb is BBC North America Editor and author of Have
A Nice Day: A Journey Through Obama's America is out in paper-
back next month. Published by Short Books, price £8.99.
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Type 1 - the condition you CAN'T prevent
About 350,00 people in the UK are affected by type 1 diabetes
- 20,000 of them children, according to the Juvenile Diabetes
Research Foundation (JDRF). It is a leading cause of kidney
failure, adult blindness, stroke, heart attack and nerve damage
leading to amputation.
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the amount of glucose in the
blood is too high.
Insulin is the hormone that transfers glucose from the blood-
stream into the cells to be used for energy. In type 1 diabetes,
blood glucose levels go outside of the normal range because
there is either insufficient or a total absence of insulin.
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, (www.jdrf.org.uk)
is the world's largest charitable funder of type 1 diabetes research.
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