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Study finds possible link between COVID-19 and Type 1 diabetes in children

A small study in the U.K. says cases of Type 1 diabetes nearly doubled in children during the peak of the pandemic.

WASHINGTON — We are learning more about how COVID-19 could affect kids. A recent study out of the U.K. said the virus could be linked to Type 1 diabetes in children after cases of the chronic condition nearly doubled. An expert at Children’s National Hospital weighed in on the research.  

It is another mystery in the battle against the coronavirus as researchers discovered a possible link between the virus and Type 1 diabetes in children and adolescents.

The autoimmune disease destroys cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Insulin is a hormone that turns blood sugar into energy. Without it, complications occur since high blood sugar is damaging to the body.

A small study in the U.K. is raising questions about possible ties between COVID-19 and Type 1 diabetes after cases nearly doubled, compared to previous years, in children and teens during the height of the pandemic.

The study was done between March and June on patients as old as 16. When hospitals tested kids with Type 1 diabetes, some were COVID-19 positive while others had antibodies.

Pediatric Endocrinologist Dr. Brynn Marks tells WUSA9 that it is still not clear whether the virus can cause the autoimmune disease to develop or if children who have it are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

“We still don’t know what exactly causes Type 1,” Dr. Marks said. “There’s some evidence that a related virus, the SARS virus which is similar to COVID, can attack the cells and pancreas that makes insulin so there is still that possibility that COVID-19 may be linked to Type 1, but without larger-scale studies, we just don’t know the answer right now."

Dr. Marks said it is important for parents to watch for symptoms that include: extreme thirst, frequent urination, weight loss, fatigue and bed-wetting in children that don’t normally wet the bed.

“It’s better to ask that question and find out sooner by going to your pediatrician than waiting until things get more serious,” Dr. Marks said. “One of my big worries as a physician is that the kids who do come in with diabetes are more sick when they come in.”

Dr. Marks also said kids with Type 1 diabetes are oftentimes asymptomatic. It is only detected due to screening.

Seventy percent of children in the study also exhibited a more serious complication to Type 1, Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA). It happens when blood insulin levels are too low and the body tries to make up for it by creating something called ketones, excess blood acids.

Between March 1 and Aug. 31, 109 cases of Type 1 diabetes have been diagnosed at Children’s National, according to Dr. Marks. On average, there are about 20 new cases each month or between 230-240 annually.

Dr. Marks said there have not been many variations as the number of cases ranged between 17 and 22. However, when compared to last year's total number, nearly 300 cases will be diagnosed. 

Newer technology like "continuous glucose monitors," which are little devices about the size of your pinky finger that sends data to your smartphone, are available to help monitor blood sugar, according to Dr. Marks. 

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