The rate of new Type 2 diabetes cases almost doubled among children in Alabama during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study conducted by the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB).

Type 2 diabetes is by far the most common form of diabetes. It most often develops in people over the age of 45, but an increasing number of children around the country are being diagnosed with it.

If you have Type 2 diabetes, your cells don’t respond normally to insulin, and your pancreas makes more insulin in an attempt to get cells to respond. However, the pancreas can’t always keep up, which may cause blood sugar to rise. High blood sugar can damage the body and cause serious health problems like heart disease, vision loss and kidney disease.

Risk factors for Type 2 diabetes include being overweight, having close relatives with Type 2 diabetes and exercising less than three times a week. Those who are black, Latino or Native American are also at a higher risk.

UAB researchers used Children’s of Alabama data to examine new Type 2 diabetes cases from March 2017 to March 2021.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the average monthly rate of new pediatric diagnoses of Type 2 diabetes was 11.1 new cases. After April 2020, the rate increased to 19.3 cases.

The study’s results were published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 

According to Hannah Echols, a public relations specialist for UAB, pediatric Type 2 diabetes is often referred to as a “disease of poverty.”

“Approximately 53 percent of all children in Alabama are enrolled in Medicaid, which is often an indicator of lower family income,” said Jessica Schmitt, the first author of the study and an assistant professor in the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes (DPED) at UAB and Children’s. “In addition to medications, maintaining a healthy diet and activity level are important in management of Type 2 diabetes. This can be difficult for children living in lower socioeconomic conditions.

A 2020 study in the National Library of Medicine found that government lockdowns may cause weight gain and enhance Type 2 diabetes risk. 

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey issued her “Stay at Home Order” on April 3, 2020, which demanded that Alabamians remain in their homes unless conducting “essential activities.” 

Ambika Ashraf is the director of the DPED and associate director of the Comprehensive Diabetes Center. She said further studies would be necessary to determine the exact cause of the increase.

“There was a drastic change in activity and sedentary lifestyles in youth during spring of 2020, and other studies show that adolescent males experienced greater weight gain and were more sedentary than female counterparts,” Ashraf stated. “However, we do not know if these short-term changes are directly linked to the increase in diagnoses. We also did not have information on prior COVID-19 infections among patients studied.”

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