The number of very young children with Type 1 diabetes has risen dramatically in 20 years, according to research out today.
A study found that the number of under-fives with Type 1 increased five-fold between 1985 and 2004.
The number of under-15s with the condition almost doubled during the study.
Type 1 diabetes, which used to be commonly known as insulin-dependent, generally develops in childhood.
It differs to Type 2 diabetes, which is linked to lifestyle factors such as obesity.
Of the estimated more than two million diabetics in the UK, around 250,000 suffer from Type 1.
At least 20,000 children of school age in the UK have Type 1, according to the charity Diabetes UK.
The researchers said the rise was too steep to be linked purely to genetic factors and said the environment must be playing a part.
According to the study, carried out by a team at the University of Bristol and funded by Diabetes UK, there was a 2.3 per cent increase in the number of children diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes each year.
Professor Polly Bingley, from the University, said: ‘The incidence of childhood Type 1 diabetes has been shown to be increasing all over Europe, particularly in the very young.
‘The increase is too steep to be put down to genetic factors, so it must be due to changes in our environment.
‘This could either mean that we are being exposed to something new, or that we now have reduced exposure to something that was previously controlling our immune responses.
‘We now need to work to identify what these changes might be.’
Peak age decreasing
Simon O’Neill, director of care, information and advocacy services at Diabetes UK, said: ‘This project has produced some very interesting results.
‘The evidence of a steep rise of Type 1 diabetes found in the under fives indicates that the peak age for diagnosis of the condition in the UK is becoming younger.
‘Whilst 10 to 14-year-olds remain the largest group for diagnosis, the rise in cases found in children under five is worrying.’
Type 1 diabetes usually develops before the age of 40.
It occurs when the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas end up being destroyed.
The exact cause of Type 1 is unknown but researchers are studying whether viruses or other infections may trigger it.
The study information released today focused on 2.6 million people in Oxford between 1985 and 2004.
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