Australia has one of the highest rates of childhood diabetes in the world, according to a study that finds the incidence of the disease has grown about 3 per cent every year over the past 12 years.

Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease that begins in childhood.

It destroys the body’s ability to manufacture insulin, meaning patients have to inject it up to six times a day.

There are more than 140,000 children and adults in Australia with the condition and the incidence in growing.

Maria Craig from the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney says the study aimed to find out how many children are being diagnosed.

“We’re looking at about 1,000 children per year in Australia developing type 1 diabetes … under 15 years of age,” Dr Craig said.

She found the number of patients had increased significantly in both sexes and in all age groups.

“It’s now considered by international standards as very high incidence – very high being rates greater that 20 per 100,000,” Dr Craig said.

“That puts us in line with Scandinavian countries, with the United Kingdom, New Zealand, parts of North America.

“It’s a very high rate of diabetes, much higher than a lot of parts of the world.”

Environmental factors

Doctors say the spike in cases suggests environmental factors are to blame.

Mike Wilson from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation says when it comes to the causes of type 1 diabetes, the jury is still out.

“The main environmental culprits are suggested to be either viruses or proteins in the diet, and sometimes the level of hygiene in western societies,” Mr Wilson said.

“The body doesn’t get used to shocks to its system and when it is [shocked] it can react badly such as the causes of type 1 diabetes.”

He says parents need to watch out for a range of symptoms, including increased thirst, increased urination, weight loss and abdominal pain.

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