Still think that getting Covid-19 is no big deal for children? Well, there’s been growing evidence that Covid-19 could hit you right in the pancreas. And a study just published as a research letter in JAMA Network furthered the possibility that Covid-19 may somehow lead to type 1 diabetes. Since type 1 diabetes results when the beta islet cells in your pancreas can’t produce enough insulin, this research letter is kind of a beta mail, so to speak. It adds to growing concern that the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) or your immune system’s response to the virus may potentially affect beta islet cells.
Now insulin is a pretty darn important hormone that helps regulate your blood sugar levels. Lack of enough insulin production can result in too high blood sugar levels and, in turn, damage to your heart, blood vessels, nerves, eyes, and kidneys. These not-too-sweet complications can be severely disabling and even life-threatening. This video from Diabetes UK describes type 1 diabetes in about two minutes:
So you’ve got to take any increase in the rate of new type 1 diagnoses seriously. There have already been a number of reasons to take Covid-19 among children seriously but 2022 has seen several studies emerge, raising concerns about type 1 diabetes too. For example, a research letter published on January 24, 2022 in JAMA Pediatrics reported a 57% increase in new type 1 diabetes diagnoses among children during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic compared to the year prior. Then, a study published in PLoS ONE on April 19, 2022 found that those who had had a SARS-CoV-2 infection were 42% more likely to have had such a new diagnosis compared to those who hadn’t had such an infection.
This brought us to this latest study for which a team from the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine (Ellen K. Kendall, Veronica R. Olaker, Rong Xu, PhD, and Pamela B. Davis, MD, PhD) and the MetroHealth System (David C. Kaelber, MD, PhD) in Cleveland, Ohio, analyzed data from the TriNetX Analytics Platform. This platform includes the electronic health records of over 90 million patients from 74 large health care organizations across all 50 US states and 14 different countries. Thus, the TriNetX platform can provide some X-tra large sample sizes.
From this platform, the research team identified 571, 256 patients who were 18 years of age and less: 285 ,628 of whom had had Covid-19 between March 2020 and December 2021, and 285,628 matched patients who had had non–Covid-19 respiratory infections but not Covid-19 during that same time period. One month after being diagnosed with Covid-19, patients were 96% more likely to be newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes than those who just had a non-Covid-19 respiratory infection. This bumped up to 110% more likely three months after the Covid-19 diagnosis and then was 83% more likely six months after the Covid-19 diagnosis. By six-month mark after the Covid-19 diagnosis, 0.043% (123 patients) had been newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which is about 72% more than the 0.025% (72 patients) who only had had non–Covid-19 respiratory infections.
Of course, this JAMA Network Open research letter did not provide an open and shut case for the beta islet cell possibility. It was, after all, an observational cohort study, which can only show associations and not cause-and-effect. Moreover, keep in mind that electronic health records don’t necessarily show everything that’s been going on with a patientYou’ve probably heard that just because global warming has happened over the same time period as the number of pirates on the seas has decreased doesn’t mean that training pirates would be a way of reversing global warming. That would be an “arrrgh” wrong conclusion. Similarly, more studies are needed to determine whether SARS-CoV-2 infections have really been causing type 1 diabetes.
Nevertheless, such a cause-and-effect situation could very well be possible. Remember the SARS-CoV-2 is still a relatively novel virus. Scientists still don’t know all that it can do to your body. A SARS-CoV-2 infection is not like make-up or plastic surgery. It’s effects may not be that obvious. And typically you can’t see body parts like your pancreas in your mirror. (If you can, call your doctor immediately.) Plus, when it encounters a virus for the first time, your immune system can behave like a virgin on a date for the first time, trying all kinds of random stuff without realizing the damage being caused. That’s why Covid-19 vaccination can be helpful, including for kids. It can help your immune system get used to the spike protein, a major component of the SARS-CoV-2, in a controlled way. This way your immune system may be less likely to attack parts of your own body such as your beta islet cells. In other words, your immune system may beta know what’s it’s doing.