ABU DHABI // The number of children in the UAE with type 1 diabetes has doubled since 2000, and the condition has been diagnosed in babies as young as 16 months.
Doctors say the increase has been particularly noticeable in the past five to eight years.
There has been a worldwide spike in diabetes but it is especially pronounced in this region. Health experts do not know why.
Theories include that diabetes may be brought on by viral infections during pregnancy and women in the Middle East are less knowledgeable about nutrition and medication while pregnant, and there may also be genetic and ethnic factors, said Dr Tareq Ali, a consultant in internal medicine and endocrinology at Al Noor Hospital in Abu Dhabi.
"Most children with type 1 diabetes, they have problems related to pregnancy, for example the babies who are born small," he said.
Possible related factors include pregnant women eating unhealthily or consuming pollutants, such as toxins, in food, as well as taking unnecessary medication, he said.
These factors may lead to the destruction of the baby's pancreas in the womb, and thus diabetes.
The high incidence in the UAE of type 2 diabetes, which is caused primarily by lifestyle factors such as obesity and lack of exercise, is well documented. The Diabetes 2012 Atlas Update puts the UAE 11th globally for the disease and fifth regionally, and nearly 20 per cent of the population has it.
There are no exact figures for children, but the Health Authority Abu Dhabi is compiling a diabetes registry that will list the number of children with both Type 1 and Type 2 forms of the disease.
Dr Asmara Deeb, a consultant and chief of paediatric endocrinology at Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi, has also noticed an increase.
"It's a personal observation. There is no specific data," she said. "The age in which we are seeing it is much younger. The youngest we have seen it in is 16 months.
"There are normally two peaks for when you see Type 1 diabetes - one is pre-school children and another one is teenage years, around puberty time, but now it's not peaking at certain ages, it's just common all over."
The increase is worrying, said Dr Deeb. "It is a chronic disease that is associated with short and long-term complications. Its management is complex and specialised centres are required for that."
Managing the condition in children can also be harder as it involves the whole family and schools, said Dr Deeb.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, which means people start producing antibodies which destroy the pancreas, resulting in a lack of insulin. Symptoms include frequent urination, fatigue, feeling sleepy and weight loss.
"Some people have a genetic predisposition to the disease but the exact cause is not yet confirmed. It is hypothesised that some allergens like viral infection or some foods like cow milk might trigger - but not cause - the immune destructive process," she said.
Dr Ahed Bisharat, a consultant paediatrician at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi, also says the condition is being diagnosed in more children.
"Within the past 10 or 15 years it has doubled, especially in the Gulf area. It's worrying because many other illnesses can occur because of this diabetes," he said.
Complications include a disease of the retina, which can lead to blindness, kidney problems, cardiac problems, vascular diseases and neurological illness
Dr Farhana bin Lootah , a specialist in internal medicine at Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi, said: "Type 1 diabetes is mostly diagnosed in young people and while the medical profession is able to explain the bodily process for the condition it has yet to discover what triggers the disease."
There is no data available to determine whether there has been an increase. "However, as a result of many factors we are definitely able to offer a diagnosis much earlier," Dr bin Lootah said.
"These factors include increased public health awareness of diabetes and its symptoms. As a result, parents are more alert as to what to look for and are responding by bringing their children in for check-ups. Thus, in turn we are more aware of children living with type 1 diabetes because they are coming in to see us much earlier."