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The question: How do I know if my daughter has diabetes? And if she does, what can I do to help her treat it?

The answer: According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, a staggering nine million Canadians are living with diabetes.

It is important to understand that diabetes comes in two forms, somewhat unimaginatively called Type 1 and Type 2. Type 2 diabetes is the predominate form in adults, accounting for 90 per cent of all diabetes. Rates of Type 2 diabetes are on the rise in Canada due to our increasingly aging, obese and inactive population. Type 2 diabetes is also found in epidemic proportions in our First Nations communities.

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By contrast, Type 1 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes in children. We still don't really understand why some children develop this illness. Although it can run in families, more often than not, children with Type 1 diabetes are the first ones in their family affected.

Contrary to popular opinion, Type 1 diabetes is not due to eating too much sugar. It occurs when a child's pancreas (an abdominal organ found close to your stomach) fails to make enough of the hormone insulin, which is required for the body's cells to absorb and utilize sugars and carbohydrates. As such, children with undiagnosed diabetes have high blood-sugar levels, as the sugar can't get into the cells where it's needed.

One of the classic signs of diabetes in children is frequent passing of large amounts of urine throughout the day and night. This is caused by the body trying to address high blood-sugar levels by dumping some of the sugar into the urine. Voiding such large volumes of urine causes dehydration, which can lead to the second classic diabetes symptom: excessive thirst. The third classic symptom of Type 1 diabetes in children is weight loss, caused by the body's cells not being able to absorb and utilize sugar. As a result, children lose weight despite the fact that they have normal or even increased appetites.

In my clinic, children with newly diagnosed diabetes have typically lost between 10 and 30 pounds at the time of diagnosis. Testing children for diabetes is easily accomplished: A simple finger poke or blood test to measure blood sugar, or a dipstick test of the child's urine for high sugar levels.

Type 1 diabetes always needs to be treated with insulin injections or an insulin pump. Pediatric diabetes care is typically co-ordinated through specialized teams that include a pediatrician, dietitian and nurse.

While there is no way to prevent Type 1 diabetes, one can minimize the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes with regular physical activity. This is particularly important for those with a family history of Type 2 diabetes, people who are at risk of being overweight and individuals of native origin.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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