Sir Frederick Banting (1891-1941), the Alliston, Ontario born physician, first successfully administered insulin to a dying fourteen year old boy on January 23rd, 1922 at Toronto General Hospital.
The patient, Leonard Thompson, suffered from type 1 diabetes (also known as juvenile diabetes) which is a condition where the body stops making insulin. Insulin acts like a key in the body and without it glucose (blood sugars) cannot move from the blood and into the cells. As a result, the cells literally starve and die. Prior to the discovery of exogenous insulin (i.e. insulin which is created outside of the body), countless youth with type 1 diabetes died an unfortunate death, with many succumbing to a diabetes-induced coma.
It is reported that after the first successful injection of insulin, Banting went from bed to bed injecting comatose patients with insulin. These patients quickly woke up to overjoyed family members who were expecting them to die very soon. 90 years later, insulin continues to be an important treatment for diabetes.
Changes to the face of Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes tends to occur later in life and is characterized by an inability of the body to recognize insulin or, like in type 1 diabetes, a failure to produce insulin. Type 2 diabetes is caused by factors such as increasing age, genetic susceptibility, a lack of physical activity, poor dietary habits and overweight or obesity. Given the ageing population and changes to our world which promote physical inactivity, fast food consumption and increased stress levels (stress is never good for health), the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has been increasing at an alarming rate. Worse still, these changes are affecting our children and what was once considered an adult disease is now afflicting children and teens.
Prevention and Treatment
Although type 1 diabetes is largely attributable to genetic causes, type 2 diabetes can be prevented by regular physical activity and consumption of a healthy diet of whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, and protein from sources like lean chicken or turkey.
Insulin remains the most important treatment for type 1 diabetes and glucose-lowering medications are available for individuals with type 2 diabetes (although most will require insulin therapy as the disease progresses). In both types of diabetes, it is vital to regularly monitor glucose levels to ensure they are not too high or too low (recommended levels are prescribed by your doctor).
The Need for Awareness
Individuals with diabetes are at an increased risk for a variety of conditions and complications such as:
- Heart disease
- Kidney failure
- Non-traumatic limb amputations
Additionally, both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can reduce life expectancy by up to 15 years.
Although symptoms of diabetes include frequent thirst, frequent urination and slow-wound healing, they are often dismissed as nothing serious. People usually can’t tell they have diabetes (we can’t feel high glucose levels!) and a large number of type-2 diabetes cases remain undiagnosed. It is therefore important to spread awareness so that loved ones get tested.
Diabetes is a worldwide epidemic and not just a problem in Canada, so awareness also extends to advocacy for parts of the world where treatments are not readily available.