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Q&A: Can the coronavirus trigger type 1 diabetes in kids?

The Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes saw a 40% increase in Type 1 Diabetes during the pandemic.

AURORA, Colo. — Diabetes treatment centers saw a surge in type 1 diabetes patients that may correlate with the coronavirus pandemic.

That's according to Dr. Brigitte Frohnert, associate professor at the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes at University of Colorado-Anshutz. 

9NEWS sat down with Frohnert to discuss causes for type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disorder, and how the coronavirus may play a role in triggering it.

(Editor's note: Responses have been edited for context and clarity.)

9NEWS: What made you wonder if the coronavirus triggers type 1 diabetes?

Frohnert: This year was an unusual year in that starting in about May and June, we had a real surge in cases and we’re not the only ones to see that…The question that really comes up, is there something about coronavirus that’s triggering kids who were maybe at risk of type 1 diabetes to have that to become symptomatic and need care at that point.

What generally causes Type 1 Diabetes?

Frohnert: It’s an autoimmune disease, which means that an otherwise normal immune system gets somewhat confused and starts attacking cells of a person’s own body. And in type 1 diabetes, it is attacking the cells that make insulin….Certain types of viruses can trigger that process of autoimmunity.

Do researchers think SARS-CoV-2 could be one of the triggers?  

Frohnert: When you see multiple centers having that same observation that there’s more kids coming in in this sort of peak where we don’t normally see one….I think there’s a fairly decent chance that we’ll see that there is a little bit of a coronavirus effect of at least the timing of when kids are getting diagnosed.

How will researchers learn if the coronavirus is triggered type 1 diabetes?

Frohnert: The Autoimmunity Screening for Kids, known as the ASK Program, already screens kids for certain antibodies that show if they are at risk for type 1 diabetes…We have an antibody lab at the Barbara Davis Center, and we’re considered to be an international reference center for antibody testing…Our antibody lab developed a coronavirus antibody test and so we’re able to use that test on the same blood samples.

RELATED: COVID-19 antibodies last at least 4 months, extensive study finds

What will that antibody test tell you?

Frohnert: That will tell us, are those kids at higher risk? Does their diabetes act differently? Does their diabetes develop more quickly? And also [it] will give us a little more information about what is the rate of coronavirus of children in Colorado, which can be useful beyond our questions.

When you hear people say that COVID-19 doesn’t impact kids, what do you think?

Frohnert: I think this is something where in the community we’re thinking, well children don’t get that sick, but I think it’s also important when we’re talking about medicine and we’re talking about risks going forward, that these children...have what we expect a long healthy life to be ahead of them. So it’s important to look at long-term effects of an infection.

The Barbara Davis Center encourages all parents to have their kids screened for ASK, as most times kids test positive before showing any symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes. If families are interested in the ASK screening, they can go to ASKhealth.org or call our ASK scheduling line at 303-902-3599 to make an appointment at the BDC.

RELATED: A Colorado COVID-19 antibody test also used for genetic research

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