The number of children being treated at pediatric diabetes units (PDUs) in England and Wales has increased by more than 50% amid a “perfect storm” of rising obesity levels and the cost of living crisis, health leaders have said.
Diabetes UK said alarming obesity levels among children had led to a “concerning climb” in the number diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and predicted that the cost of living crisis could lead to further problems in the years to come.
Data from NHS Digital shows that almost one in seven children start primary school obese – a rise of almost 50% in just a year. More than a quarter are obese by the time they finish primary school.
The high levels of obesity combined with the squeeze on personal finances are creating a “perfect storm which risks irreversible harm to the health of young people”, Diabetes UK said. It accused the government of “letting our children down” as it called for concerted action to tackle obesity.
It comes after the government’s decision to delay measures to reduce unhealthy eating, weakening its anti-obesity strategy by postponing for a year a ban on buy one, get one free deals for foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
Demand for care for children with type 2 diabetes at pediatric diabetes units across England and Wales has increased by more than 50% in the last five years, according to the Diabetes UK analysis. A total of 973 children with type 2 diabetes were treated in PDUs in 2020-21, up from 621 in 2015-16.
PDUs employ a team of specialists to care for children with type 2 diabetes that can include consultants, nurses and dieticians. The team usually work in a hospital setting, where a child may attend appointments as an outpatient rather than being seen at their GP’s surgery. Previous statistics have shown that in England alone, about 1,600 children have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes UK said children in the most deprived parts of England and Wales were “disproportionately affected” by the disease, with four in 10 children and young people with type 2 diabetes living in the poorest areas, compared with only one in 19 from the richest. This is similar to data for childhood obesity prevalence, it said.
The charity said that in light of the additional burden of the cost of living crisis, the poorest children would “bear the brunt for decades to come”.
Chris Askew, the chief executive of Diabetes UK, said: “We are very concerned that this spike in childhood obesity will translate into an even greater increase in children with type 2 diabetes in the coming years, a crisis fueled by longstanding health inequalities and made worse still by impacts of the cost of living crisis.
“Government needs to entirely rethink its commitment to child health. This must start with urgently reversing the decision to backtrack on their obesity strategy commitments and go further still, with bold steps to address childhood obesity and poorer outcomes for children living in poverty in the forthcoming health disparities white paper.
“The UK government is letting our children down. With soaring numbers of children now living with obesity, and numbers diagnosed with type 2 diabetes on a very concerning climb, we are facing a perfect storm, which risks irreversible harm to the health of young people.”