Many of New Zealand's children and young people are to play a key, if unwitting, part in research that could help young type 1 diabetes sufferers achieve better results from school and tertiary education.
Researchers at the University of Otago are to compare the education results of a ten-year birth cohort of about 600,000 Kiwis (up to the age of 20) against the approximately 2500 young people who have the illness to establish whether they experience worse educational outcomes.
Dr Ben Wheeler, an associate professor and paediatric endocrinologist at the university who heads up the research team with Nick Bowden, a research fellow at Otago, says brain imaging research has shown the illness can have negative impacts on the developing brain - which has led to concern that kids with type 1 diabetes find it tougher at school and university.
"This is what has prompted us to carry out the research," he says. "We hope it will help shed additional light on the longer-term negative impacts of type 1 diabetes for children.
"If differences in education outcomes are found between those with and without type 1 diabetes, this will provide evidence that can be used to advocate for policy change, interventions, and targeted supports."
Preliminary results are expected in a few months.
The project is being funded by a grant from the charity Cure Kids. The organisation is the largest charitable funder of research into children's health in New Zealand, a cause it has been committed to for 50 years.
Wheeler says type 1 diabetes, the most common chronic illness in children after asthma, can be devastating not only for the children who suffer from it, but also their families.
About 20,000 New Zealanders, including 2500 children, have the disease and Wheeler says if it is not well managed, it can cause serious health issues including problems with eyesight and blood circulation as well as damage to the heart and kidneys. Sufferers also experience high and low levels of glucose.
With the Cure Kids funding, Wheeler's team will spend the next few months examining health data to determine those with and without type 1 diabetes and education data to explore rates of suspensions, NCEA achievement and level of tertiary enrolments among the two groups.
As diabetes in New Zealand can disproportionately impact rangatahi (young) Māori and Pasifika people, Bowden and Wheeler plan to specifically examine educational outcomes for these groups of children.
"These findings may also help in reducing known inequities in educational outcomes for Māori and Pasifika," Wheeler says. "It's important because we want to ensure that young people with type 1 diabetes have the same educational opportunities as people who don't."
"Diabetes requires many injections, finger pricks, and decisions every day. This intensity and complexity of management carries substantial burden — both physically and psychologically — for children and their families."
Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune condition that typically appears in adolescence. Symptoms include increased thirst, frequent urination, hunger, fatigue and blurred vision. There is no cure, but it can be managed by treatments aimed at maintaining normal blood sugar levels through regular monitoring, insulin therapy, diet and exercise.
Wheeler says the cause of the disease is not completely known. "It's really completely bad luck and if you get it, you've got it for life. It may have a bit to do with genetics, but it's got nothing to do with lifestyle or poor diet."
Cure Kids Chief Executive, Frances Benge, says it is only through the generosity of Kiwis that it can continue to fund research into child health like that being undertaken by Bowden, Wheeler and their team.
"We encourage people who are able to, to consider making a donation to support future projects so our children can have healthier lives with brighter futures."
To donate to Cure Kids to support critical child health research, go to: www.curekids.org.nz