Growing numbers of children and young people are developing type 2 diabetes, a disease usually seen in those aged over 40, in the latest sign of worsening childhood obesity.
The number of people aged up to 25 with the condition in England and Wales increased from 507 in 2013-14 to 715 in 2016-17 – a 41% rise.
The sharp rise has prompted concern among doctors and led to renewed calls for tougher government action to tackle the relentless increase in the number of dangerously overweight youngsters.
“Type 2 diabetes is a disaster for the child and their family and for the NHS,” said Graham MacGregor, a professor of cardiovascular health at Queen Mary University of London who is also the chair of the campaign group Action on Sugar.
“If a child gets type 2 diabetes, it’s condemning them to a lot of complications of that condition, such as blindness, amputations and kidney disease,” he said.
“These figures are a sign that we are in a crisis and that the government doesn’t seem to be taking action, or not enough and not quickly enough.”
The figures have been collected by paediatric diabetes units at hospitals across England and Wales and collated by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).
“Type 2 diabetes typically develops in adults over the age of 40, so – while still rare in children – it is extremely worrying that we are seeing more young people develop the condition,” said Izzi Seccombe, the chair of the community wellbeing board at the Local Government Association (LGA), which obtained the figures from the RCPCH.
Type 2 diabetes is closely associated with being very overweight. Almost four in five (79%) of the 715 children suffering from it were also obese, the NHS data revealed.
The figures show that people from some ethnic minorities are much more likely than others to develop type 2 diabetes. Almost half of the 715 young people were black or Asian.
“Much more needs to be done to reach out to black and ethnic minority groups over the disease,” said the LGA, which represents 370 councils across England and Wales.
The figures come soon after it emerged that 22,000 children aged 10 and 11 in England are severely obese because their body mass index (BMI) is at least 40.
For adults, a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 means someone has a healthy weight; 25 to 29.9 denotes they are overweight; 30 to 39.9 means someone is obese; and 40 or above signifies severe obesity.
“The rise in type 2 diabetes in young children highlights why bold measures are needed to tackle childhood obesity – and change won’t happen overnight”, said Eustace de Sousa of Public Health England (PHE).
It has asked food manufacturers to cut the amount of sugar in their products by 20% by 2020. However, firms have reduced the sugar content by just 2% in the first year of the initiative, well below the 5% target PHE set. It is also helping to plan a series of “healthy towns” and is running healthy eating campaigns.
Ministers recently announced measures intended to halve childhood obesity by 2030, including:
Demanding calorie labelling on menus in cafes, takeaways and restaurants.
Banning the sale of caffeine-filled energy drinks to under-16s.
Stopping supermarkets displaying treat foods near checkouts or including them in money-off offers.
But much firmer action is needed, said MacGregor. “Appeals to people to eat more healthily won’t be enough. We need to ban the marketing and advertising of unhealthy foods altogether, not just limit it, as ministers are considering.
“We should also extend the sugary drinks tax to confectionery and set a target of reducing the sugar in products by 50%, far more than the 20% PHE is proposing,” he added.
Seccombe, a Conservative member of Warwickshire county council, criticised government cuts to councils’ public health budgets as “short-sighted” given the scale of the obesity epidemic.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care 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 45m 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.”
By The Guardian