Why Do Some Kids Get Juvenile Diabetes? And Can We Prevent it?

The endocrinologist entered Riley’s hospital room, and asked how things were going. Did he have any stomach aches, pain, and how were his ketones? Then he turned to me and asked the loaded question: “Was there anything else that I wanted to know about?”

Yes. I wanted to know why. Why did I have two children with juvenile diabetes? What caused it? Did I feed my kids too much sugar? What had I done? How could I prevent this from happening to yet another one of my kids?

That’s when the endocrinologist explained what we know about the disease, and what we don’t.

First, in order for a child to contract juvenile diabetes, or diabetes mellitus type I (insulin-dependent), there must be two components present. First, the child must have the genetic predisposition for the disease.

First Component: Genetic Predisposition

Apparently, some children have a genetic tendency to inherit the disease. If a child has an immediate family member with the disease, he is fifteen times more likely to develop it. However, many children with no genetic history may still contract the disease, if they have specific “markers” in their blood. Human leukocyte antigens (HLA) are a set of surface blood proteins that help to control immune function. Two specific HLA markers—HLA-DR and HLA-DQ assist the body in identifying foreign invaders. These two markers have been specifically linked with type 1 diabetes. In every child with this form of diabetes, at least one of these two antigen markers will be present in the blood. However, not every child who has one of these markers will go on to develop diabetes. And this is where the mystery lies.

Second Component: Environmental Trigger

If the child has the first component–the predisposition through heredity and the antigen markers, he will go on to develop juvenile diabetes if the environmental “trigger” is pulled. We know that there is something in the environment, like a viral strain, toxins, or certain medications, that set the destructive process in motion. However, we aren’t really sure what that trigger is. At this point, we are only guessing.

Should we test our children for the antigen markers?

It would be possible for me, a mother of two children with juvenile diabetes, to test my other children for the antigen markers to find out whether they are pre-disposed to the condition. The trouble is, if we learned that any of them had the predisposition, it would not mean that they were doomed to get the disease. They’d still have to come in contact with the environmental trigger, to activate it. And since we aren’t sure what that environmental factor is, there are no active steps I could take to help my children avoid it, anyway.

In other words, testing to find whether your child has the antigen markers could provide you with information, but there is little you could do with the knowledge. So my doctor did not recommend testing for the markers. However, our family did so anyway. We wanted to participate in research that might help others with juvenile diabetes in the future. We wanted to provide information for scientists that could possibly be a step toward curing this dreadful disease. So we gave our blood, not really because we wanted to find out who had the antibodies, but because we wanted to participate in helpful research. We did find out about the genetic markers for our family, as a result.

My Final Thoughts…

I am astonished to learn just how much we’re still in the dark about this disease. Fortunately, a tremendous amount of research is being done, and there is reasonable hope that a cure may be found within the next decade. Or two. I certainly hope, for my boys’ sake, that it’s soon. You can help by supporting the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here.