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Study: Standard Treatment Ineffective for Kids With Obesity-Linked Diabetes

June 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Nearly one out of every three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those numbers are prompting a series of efforts to combat obesity. Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, the alarming rise in diabetes among the young. Nearly one out of every four American teens either has the disease, or is at risk. Those numbers are prompting a series of efforts to combat obesity.

The Disney Company announced yesterday it will be the first major media company to ban junk food advertising to kids on TV, radio and the Web.

But doctors say that, when it comes to kids, the dangers of diabetes are even harder to treat than they expected.

NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser has the story.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sixteen-year-old Shannon Conder is part of a medical trend sweeping the country that has doctors everywhere alarmed.

The Pueblo, Colo., teenager has type 2 diabetes, something once almost unheard of in children.

Her doctor is pediatric endocrinologist Phil Zeitler of the University of Colorado.

DR. PHILLIP ZEITLER, University of Colorado: She’s pretty typical. She is a very sedentary child, has been for a long time, really has no experience with activity, no way to think about being active. She’s relatively socially isolated, doesn’t really have very many social opportunities. She’s homeschooled. She has a number of medical problems, in addition to her diabetes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: About 3,600 cases of the disease are now being diagnosed in children each year. That increase encouraged a national study of children with type 2 diabetes released last month and sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Zeitler chaired the research, which came to some pretty grim conclusions, among them, that the drugs used to treat early stages of the disease aren’t working very well.

DR. PHILLIP ZEITLER: That was a big surprise. We didn’t really expect that standard therapy would be so ineffective in these kids.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What he’s talking about is a drug called Metformin that, when given to adults, keeps them relatively stable for years, but not so for the children in the study. And researchers don’t know why.

Dr. Barbara Linder is the senior adviser for childhood diabetes research at NIH.

DR. BARBARA LINDER, National Institutes of Health: We’re not sure. We’re doing a lot of further data analyses to try to understand this. Type 2 diabetes has multiple components. People who develop type 2 diabetes are insulin-resistant. And we do know that there are hormonal changes during puberty that make all children somewhat insulin-resistant.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But, for whatever reason, it means type 2 diabetes is progressing faster in children than it does in adults.

DR. PHILLIP ZEITLER: In adults, the average time from the diagnosis of diabetes to the onset of their first major cardiovascular event, heart attack, need for bypass, something like that, is about 15 to 20 years.

Everything that we have seen so far suggests that these kids have a progression rate that’s at least as quick, if not a little faster, which means that this kid who has their onset of diabetes at 15, we may be looking at their first major cardiovascular event by the time they’re 35.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Shannon’s mother, Terry England, has heard about all the complications that can result from diabetes. Other people in her family have had the disease. One cousin even died from it. But England says she can’t be around 24 hours a day to monitor Shannon’s diet.

TERRY ENGLAND, mother of Shannon: Sometimes, she will sneak off and have things she shouldn’t anyway. It’s like, I’m going to be like everyone else, you know? But I don’t think that at her age, and even before, I don’t think that she totally gets it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Not only does Shannon have type 2 diabetes. She recently had major surgery for obstructive sleep apnea to open her airways and help her breathe better. And she’s well aware that there is one thing she could do to improve her condition.

SHANNON CONDER, suffers from type 2 diabetes: Yes, it is hard to not be like everybody else. But, you know, everyone has some kind of thing they have to carry with their whole life. So this is mine.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Would you like to be able to lose weight?

SHANNON CONDER: Yes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is it hard to do that?

SHANNON CONDER: Yes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What’s the hardest part about it?

SHANNON CONDER: Willpower.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Zeitler says the irony of this explosion in type 2 cases in children is that the disease is almost entirely preventable. He calls it a lifestyle illness.

DR. PHILLIP ZEITLER: This represents the outcome of a large number of social changes that probably began in the ’70s, more mothers working, so the kids were coming home to empty homes, being told to stay indoors, more opportunities for sedentary activities. When I was a kid, you went outside. So, the opportunities for sedentary behavior have increased.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Fifteen-year-old Essence Reece knows how hard it is to stay active. After her diagnosis, she dropped about 50 pounds, then gained much of it back. But she works out constantly, playing varsity volleyball and basketball at Denver’s Thomas Jefferson High School, saying she will never give up, but it’s a constant battle.

ESSENCE REECE, Suffers from type 2 diabetes: Either you’re going to deal with it or it’s just going to take over. And it just — like, because my grandfather, he lost his eyesight and — from diabetes. And my dad was like, you don’t want to lose your eyesight, so do this, do that.

I think losing my eyesight scares me the most. Like, losing a limb, it scares me, but it doesn’t scare as, like, losing my eyesight.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Researchers at NIH say they will continue to look for new therapies to treat type 2 diabetes in children.

DR. BARBARA LINDER: So, if we’re looking at a population of young people who are developing it early on, and now we’re going to be having 10 or 20 years of duration in the prime of their life, as opposed to when they’re 60 or 70 years old, we’re faced with the prospect of a huge public health burden for the country.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Projections for diabetes cases are not encouraging. It’s estimated now that, by the year 2040, one in three Americans will be diagnosed with the disease.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, we will report on a California city’s solution to rising rates of diabetes, a proposal to tax sugary drinks.

A slide show on our website offers tips on how to avoid the disease, and a video features a student chef competition for the healthiest school meals.