Mother testing young girl's insulin levels due to type 1 diabetes

What is type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that stops the pancreas from producing insulin. Insulin is an important hormone that helps the body turn the glucose (sugar) found in food into energy. Without insulin, glucose isn’t used up in the way the body needs it to, leading to high blood sugar levels, called ‘hyperglycaemia’.

In Australia, type 1 diabetes is often diagnosed during childhood and is considered one of the most common chronic conditions affecting children.

At this stage, researchers have yet to find a cure, which means children (or their parents) must regularly test their blood glucose levels and replace their insulin with injections or a pump. If this important process is done incorrectly, it may lead to too little, or too much, insulin in the blood and low or high blood sugar levels. This may have damaging effects on health and wellbeing.

How many children does it affect?

It is estimated that around 11,000 Australian children and young people have diabetes. While most children have type 1 diabetes, there has also been a rise in the number of young people who have type 2 diabetes. This is caused by high dietary sugar levels and being overweight or obese. At present, there are approximately 1,000 people under the age of 20 who have type 2 diabetes.

In 2020 it was reported that type 1 diabetes affects approximately 6,500 children in Australia under 14 years of age.

What is the impact of having childhood type 1 diabetes?

 Having type 1 diabetes as a child can have serious and long-term impacts.

Diabetes research undertaken at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute found that children with diabetes can be negatively impacted in terms of brain function and mental health. This can lead to further problems, such as not finishing high school and not staying in medical care when they are older. Brain function can also be impacted by diabetic ketoacidosis ­– a complication of not receiving enough insulin.

What are the symptoms? 

A child with type 1 diabetes may experience a variety of symptoms throughout their life. Some of the most common symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Constant hunger
  • Urinating more often than usual
  • Feeling tired
  • Headaches and/or feeling dizzy
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Blurry vision
  • Mood swings

If your child is experiencing any combination of these symptoms, it is important that they are taken to a General Practitioner (GP) for a diabetes blood test.

What diabetes research is taking place at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute?

Murdoch Children’s is at the forefront of diabetes research in Australia.

Our CLARiFY (Cognitive and Longitudinal Assessments of Risk Factors over 30 Years) study aims to understand the association between early onset disease/poor diabetes control with adverse changes in the brains of children with type 1 diabetes. This study will also help us learn more about the impact of type 1 diabetes on cognitive function and mental health and therefore provide information to protect children’s developing brains in the future.

Additionally, we are participating in immunotherapy trials in newly diagnosed children and investigating the potential role of stem cell therapies to either prevent, or reverse, type 1 diabetes.