Shetland is experiencing rapid and unexplained growth in type 1 diabetes, with the highest incidence of diagnosis per head of population in Europe.
According to figures released by a leading charity this week, the level of type 1 in Shetland stands at 0.27 per 1,000 people – significantly higher than the Scottish average of 0.18 per 1,000 people.
Altogether there were 958 people in the Shetland population on the diabetes register for the isles last year.
JDRF, formerly the Juvenille Diabetes Research Foundation, an organisation dedicated to finding a cure for type 1, said around 27,000 people in Scotland live with type 1 every day. Diagnosis of under fives in Scotland is the highest in the world.
More than £8 billion is spent by the NHS treating type 1 and type 2 diabetes, £2 billion of that on type 1.
The warning came this week from JDRF Scotland’s development manager Alastair Brookes, who met around 20 people affected by type 1 at a meeting in Islesburgh on Wednesday. He described type 1 as a “time-bomb” which needed to be made safe.
“The problem we’ve got is that this condition is increasing five per cent year on year. I think, if we take that already it costs the NHS £2 billion a year, if that’s increasing at five per cent year on year, where do we go with that? It’s a time bomb.
“This is a condition that we really do need to dig down a bit and get sorted. If you don’t, you’re only going to get into a situation where you run out of money. You can’t keep spending £2 billion.”
The anticipated growth in children coming through the school system with type 1 will prove to be an added challenge for many in education, although Mr Brookes insisted teachers in Shetland were well-equipped to deal with them.
“The last time we were here we visited a few of the schools. And I think what was apparent in Shetland was that the schools absolutely embrace the condition.”
Type 1 diabetes is caused when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Insulin then has to be administered artificially, through an insulin pen, or, increasingly, through special insulin pumps, which are steadily becoming more readily available thanks to a Scottish government plan to have at least 25 per cent of sufferers on a pump programme by the end of 2013.
But Mr Brookes said there was continuing frustration over confusion about the differences between type 1 and type 2. Type 2 diabeties is a metabolic disorder characterised by high blood glucose associated with insulin resistance and relative insulin deficiency.
Mr Brookes said it was not uncommon for people to make the wrong assumption that type 1 is caused by poor diet or an unhealthy lifestyle. The charity is even keen to distance type 1 from the word “diabetes”.
“Type 1 is not caused by anything that the person with type 1 – or their parents – did or did not do,” he insisted.
Mr Brookes said the cause of the increased incidence of the condition was still unknown. However scientific developments in the search for a cure have leaped further in the last 10 years than they did in the previous 40 years.
Experts are still cagey about exactly when a cure will be found. Mr Brookes said the most optimistic guess anyone could make was around 20 years.
But he said that hasn’t stopped significant strides from being made in the research and development of new up-and-coming treatments, such as so-called “smart-insulin”, which is administered only once a day, but is designed to work only when the body needs it.
Shetland is already well known for pulling its weight when it comes to raising funds for treatment and research, with thousands of pounds being made here to help combat type 1.
Mr Brookes added: “We’ve quite a successful fund-raising group up here. Over the last few years we’ve raised over £25,000 in Shetland. If we’ve got anybody raising that sort of money then it’s only right that that is recognised and thanked.”
He was keen to raise awareness of a “Young Ambassador” scheme, which aims to recruit young folk to highlight the condition and speak to others affected by it. Mr Brookes said it was all part of highlighting type 1 in the political arena, something the charity is generally doing more of now.
“We would absolutely love to have some ambassadors from Shetland. In the past JDRF raised money – we funded research, but we didn’t really want to get into political fencing. Now we are saying, let’s roll our sleeves up and bring it on.
“JDRF is working absolutely flat out to try to get to the cure, and we will continue to do that. We’ve got a group of people in the UK who are absolutely committed and hugely passionate. People who come into the organisation and are not passionate about it are found out quite quickly.”
Anyone who would like to know more about the scheme can contact Mr Brookes on 01224 248677.