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Inside Pediatrics Podcast

BIRMINGHAM (Nov. 23, 2021) – A century ago, a patient diagnosed with diabetes might live only three years suffering through a state of starvation before succumbing to the disease. Now, doctors are inching closer to technology that mimics the function of the pancreas. 

As the medical community celebrates American Diabetes Month, endocrinologists are taking a look at the past, present and future of the chronic condition. Children’s of Alabama pediatric endocrinologist Hussein Abdul-Latif, M.D., has seen many advancements during a career that began in 1985, when insulin pumps were worn like backpacks, and the idea of checking blood sugar with a meter was considered novel. 

“In a sense, we are reaching close to having an artificial pancreas that is very responsible and very reliable,” Abdul-Latif said. “We’re not yet exactly like what a pancreas does, but we’re not very far. It’s a place I did not imagine would exist when I graduated from my medical school, and so that keeps me very positive.” 

For children with Type 2 diabetes, more medications are now available, and Abdul-Latif says they can delay or even prevent the use of insulin. They make the child’s life easier and have the potential to improve the prognosis for kids with Type 2 diabetes. 

The existence of insulin as a treatment for diabetics is evidence of the progress that’s been made in the fight against diabetes. This year marks the 100th anniversary of insulin’s discovery. According to the Endocrine Society, it “transformed diabetes from a death sentence to a chronic condition.” 

“This is what insulin means,” Abdul-Latif said. “It gave people life.” 

But concerns remain about diabetes and its impact, especially on children. Abdul-Latif says that, according to research, teens and younger children diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes often deal with complications from it in their mid-20s and early-30s, and they have a hard time controlling it. He says doctors don’t understand why. 

“It’s painful for me to see it because I’m not yet 100% clear what I should do prevent that relatively poor outcome,” Abdul-Latif said. “But it makes me very vigilant that I need to advise them to always be vigilant and not forget that they have diabetes and to be very active and maintain a healthy lifestyle.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated the issue. In the early stages of the pandemic, during the lockdown, many people were afraid to visit doctors and emergency rooms, Abdul-Latif said. As a result, some patients were already in diabetic ketoacidosis – a dangerous and life-threatening condition – when they arrived at medical centers. More recently, doctors have seen patients previously not diagnosed with diabetes who arrive with both COVID-19 and diabetes. Many, Abdul-Latif said, are very sick and have to be put on ventilators. 

“We are actively advising our patients that have diabetes to receive the vaccine against COVID-19,” Abdul-Latif said. 

The diabetes program at Children's of Alabama is one of the largest in the country, serving about 2,700 children with diabetes. It provides comprehensive services for infants, children, adolescents and young adults with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, cystic fibrosis-related diabetes, steroid-induced diabetes, post-pancreatectomy diabetes and other rare forms of diabetes. Accredited by the American Diabetes Association Education Program, the program provides an environment conducive to learning and promotes collaboration with all members of the diabetes healthcare team, foremost the child and family. 

“It’s a very involved system because patients with diabetes deal with lots of needs, in a way, and because the management of diabetes is the management of life, and diabetes enters all aspects of life, whether you’re eating, you’re drinking, you’re exercising, diabetes is always there,” Abdul-Latif said. 

Residents of Alabama can support the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at Children’s by purchasing the Hope for Kids with Diabetes specialty car tag. The tag is available for $50 at all state Department of Motor Vehicle locations. For each tag purchased, $41.50 will benefit pediatric diabetes patient care and education, physician training and research at Children’s of Alabama. Since 2014, the Hope for Kids with Diabetes tag has raised more than $518,000 for the diabetes program. 

For more information on the Hope for Kids with Diabetes tag and the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at Children’s, visit childrensal.org/tags.