Type 1 diabetes rates especially high in the Pacific Northwest

SEATTLE - Approximately 1.25 million American children and adults have type 1 diabetes according to the American Diabetes Association.

And researchers at the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason say rates of the autoimmune disease are higher in the Pacific Northwest than anywhere else in the country.

Jennifer Benton, a mother to 20-month-old Kalia has perfected a routine for testing Kalia's blood sugar.

It's a routine repeated 10 times a day, that started on June 30, 2017 when Kalia was rushed to the emergency room at Children's Hospital in Seattle. Her blood sugar levels were above 600, almost six times the normal level.

After days in the intensive care unit, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. 

"I cry every day, still, just thinking about, like, the next birthday party she goes to she’s not going to be able to have cake or the goody bag, or little things like that," said Benton.

Benton says type 1 diabetes does not run in her family, but as someone who works in the healthcare field, she picked up on red flags over the past eight months.

Benton said she noticed swollen lymph nodes on Kalia and prior to leaving on a camping trip over summer, "A few nights before the camping trip she was wetting through her diaper three to four times a night and asking for water six or seven times a night," said Benton.

Those red flags, hallmarks of type 1 diabetes in children, according to Dr. Jane Buckner, president of the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason in Seattle.

"Children with type 1 diabetes, they frequently are very thirsty, and they urinate frequently and they frequently lose weight," said Buckner.

Dr. Buckner who has been studying autoimmune disease for more than 20 years says genetics to play apart, but that it is not the whole story. She says research has shows people of northern European decent have a higher rate of type 1 diabetes, and although there are no clear answers as to why. Buckner says people living in the northwest also have an increased risk of type 1 diabetes along with other autoimmune diseases.

"People wonder if it has to do with the climate here, and certainly there is a lot of interest in sunlight and vitamin D and that’s being actively studied as well," said Buckner.

Environmental factors are also a key focus on research and how they contribute to autoimmune disease.

The diagnosis of type 1 diabetes for Benton's family has changed their daily lives. "Every morning we wake up and we do algebra all day long, we’re mathematicians," said Benton showing her logs of carbohydrate content that Kalia consumes in a day.

"It’s doable and there is new technology coming out, but at the end of the day, they need to find a cure," said Benton.

Doctors say if type 1 diabetes is diagnosed early it may prevent serious illnesses later in life and make it easier to manage.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system attacks and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin.

People with the disease must inject themselves with insulin to stay alive. They carefully monitor their blood sugar and also balance food intake and exercise. Long term life-threatening complications of type 1 diabetes include organ damage such as heart disease, kidney disease, blindness and nerve damage.