Scientists are still learning about the impact of COVID-19 more than three years after the pandemic began. The latest finding from a new study: Children who have had COVID are at increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
The study, which was published in JAMA, analyzed data from almost 1.2 million children in Bavaria. Of these, 1,242 children were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes by December 2019. Among children who did not have a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes in early 2020, 195,795 were diagnosed with COVID between January 2020 and December 2021.
The study found that, in children diagnosed with COVID, rates of type 1 diabetes diagnosis increased significantly. There were nearly 29 cases of type 1 diabetes per 100,000 person-years in children who did not have a diagnosis of COVID-19, compared with more than 55 cases of type 1 diabetes per 100,000 person-years during the same quarter for a child diagnosed with COVID. (Person-years is a measure that takes the total number of study participants and multiplies it by the years the patients were in the study.)
The researchers concluded that COVID contributed to the “increased incidence of type 1 diabetes during the pandemic.”
This isn’t the first study to link COVID with an increased risk of being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in children. A study published in JAMA last year found that children who had COVID had a 72% higher risk of being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes than those with no history of the virus.
But the link between COVID and a diagnosis of diabetes isn’t just found in children. A JAMA A study published in February found that adults with known COVID infection had a 58% higher risk of being diagnosed with any type of diabetes than those who did not have the virus. Other JAMA A study published in April found that people infected with COVID were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes within a year of having the virus, compared to those without a COVID diagnosis. Men were also more likely to be diagnosed with women and people hospitalized with the virus were twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes.
While researchers are hesitant to say that COVID causes diabetes, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that it does. “This study found that SARS-CoV-2 infection was associated with a higher risk of diabetes, suggesting that these infections may have contributed to an excess of diabetes in the population,” the researchers concluded in the latest study.
Doctors say they are seeing this increase in diabetes in practice as well. “Typically you see maybe a new case of type 1 diabetes every 10 years — I saw four cases last year,” Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., told Yahoo Life. “There is definitely an increase in the amount of diabetes cases that we are seeing.”
But what’s going on here and what does it mean for kids? Experts explain.
Why can COVID lead to a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes in children?
For the record, many doctors don’t think this link is a coincidence. “Although these studies do not absolutely and unequivocally establish cause and effect, there is a biological plausibility that this is real,” Thomas Russo, an infectious disease specialist at the University at Buffalo, told Yahoo Life.
Exactly why there is a link – and whether COVID-19 actually causes diabetes – is still being investigated. However, there are some theories about what could be behind it.
The leading theory is that the virus causes some people to develop so-called autoantibodies – that is, antibodies directed at their own bodies. “Autoantibodies can develop and be directed to pancreatic cells that produce insulin, leading to diabetes,” explains Russo. (Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce insulin, whereas in type 2 diabetes the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, causing blood sugar spikes, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.)
It’s also possible that COVID-19 directly damages cells in the pancreas, causing problems with insulin production, says Russo.
But COVID causes inflammation in the body as a whole, Ganjian points out. “This probably also causes inflammation in the pancreas and can cause it to malfunction,” he says.
Why is this so significant?
Diabetes is a serious, often lifelong illness that requires careful management, says Ganjian. “Type 1 diabetes does not solve. Children will have forever,” he says. A diagnosis like this can change a child’s life, says Russo.
“We are learning that there are consequences to getting a COVID infection beyond acute illness, hospitalization and poor outcomes,” says Russo.
The link between COVID-19 and diabetes also raises questions about other viruses and the disease. “It’s important for us to research whether other viruses are associated with diabetes and, if so, what we can do to mitigate their effects,” says Ganjian.
What do parents need to know?
Russo highlights the importance of vaccinating children against COVID. “While the risk of serious illness and poor outcomes is low compared to other populations, this could help,” he says. “Previous studies show that this association occurred mainly in unvaccinated children. Vaccination is not perfect, but it appears to help protect against serious illness and possible consequences.”
Given how common COVID is, Ganjian urges parents to be aware of diabetes symptoms in children. “If you’re seeing a kid with vague issues — he’s drinking more, he’s peeing more, and he’s tired — think diabetes,” he says. It is important for parents and clinicians to keep this in mind.
Wellness, parenting, body image and more: discover the Who behind hoo with the Yahoo Life newsletter. Sign here.