Clodagh Anderson is every bit the normal 10 year-old-girl - she is fun-loving and likes playing sports.
The only thing that sets her apart from others is that certain everyday events need a little more planning on her and her parents’ side, as she has a life-long condition to manage. Clodagh has to prick a finger to check her blood glucose levels about six to eight times a day, depending on when and what she is eating, and the sport she will be engaged in.
It’s a lot to manage for any child, but it’s become a condition she has “taken in her stride”.
She is one of about 3.5 million people with diabetes in South Africa and, more specifically, part of the approximately 5% to 10% of people with Type 1 diabetes, the most prevalent type in children.
According to the NPO, Diabetes South Africa, 6 000 children are diagnosed with this type of diabetes annually, with numbers of very young children with Type 1 increasing by 1% a year.
“Type 1 is an auto-immune disease; this means that the body’s own immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin,” said Margot McCumisky, spokesperson for the organisation.
“When we eat our food, our body turns it into glucose to be used as fuel for our bodies cells. The glucose goes into the bloodstream, which transports the glucose throughout the body. Insulin is needed to be released from the pancreas to allow the glucose to open the cells, so that the cells can be fed. Without insulin, we are not able to make use of the food that we eat (and) without treatment, it is life threatening.”
Rewind to over a year ago, when Clodagh’s parents noticed she had been drinking a lot more water than normal.
“We took her to our local GP, who confirmed her glucose levels were quite high and that we needed to come back the next day for more tests,” Clodagh’s mother, Maura Canavan, said.
Initially, Canavan and her husband, Rob Anderson, were devastated. They didn’t know anything about this condition as none of them had anyone on either sides of their families who had ever been diagnosed with it.
At that time, Clodagh was only 9 years old, way too young to be dealing with a condition as life-altering as diabetes.
McCumisky said that while it wasn’t medically known why Type 1 was most prevalent in children, there was a school of thought that an environmental or viral trigger, which starts the destruction of the beta cells in the pancreas, could be a reason.
Rosemary Flynn, clinical psychologist at the Centre for Diabetes and Endocrinology (CDE), said that while major advances had taken place in recent years in the management of young people with Type 1 diabetes, one couldn’t step away from the psychological repercussions of a challenging, never-ending condition that needed constant management.
“Advances have helped lessen the burden of everyday living for youngsters and reduce their risk of long-term complications, but the condition still has an impact on behaviours, self-esteem, sibling and peer relationships, and family dynamics,” she added.
McCumisky shared Flynn’s sentiments: “The family dynamic can be changed dramatically with the diagnosis of a child with diabetes. Both parents and children need to be educated and supported in the initial stages and ongoing support and specialised treatment is needed throughout the stages of childhood to adulthood,” she said.
Canavan said that while her family had to make a few adjustments to make sure of the maintenance of Clodagh’s optimal health, Clodagh herself had taken on to herself the added responsibility of managing her health “incredibly”.
Canavan said, “We’re a positive family and don’t let her condition define her. She is a normal, fun-loving girl. It has changed how we do things, because it is tricky to maintain glucose levels in the blood and it isn’t always easy keeping them in the normal band, be it because of a sudden flu, tummy ache or anxiety over exams.”
But, for this family of four, which includes Clodagh’s older brother, Finbar (12), her condition hasn’t changed much in terms of their already healthy diet.
“Clodagh eats a normal diet ... except for carbs, she needs to inject insulin to match her carb intake.”
Canavan said they were positive about the future: “First prize is obviously a cure otherwise, available technology is changing all the time, which is improving the accuracy of glucose monitoring systems and insulin delivery systems.”