Type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM) is a chronic noncommunicable disease, with a usual onset in childhood and adolescence (Boman et al., 2017). The condition is characterised by the destruction of pancreatic β-cells, which are responsible for the production of insulin – a hormone with a crucial role in the regulation of blood glucose levels. Insulin allows glucose to enter a cell, where it can be used as a source of energy for the body. If there is too little insulin in the body, glucose cannot enter the cells and accumulates in the blood vessels, causing potentially life-threatening complications (Gillespie, 2006). Acute complications include diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and severe hypoglycemia (Rewers et al., 2002). Chronic complications result from long-term damages caused by hyperglycemia at vascular level and include coronary disease, stroke, damage to the eye (retinopathy), to the nerves (neuropathy), and the kidneys (nephropathy). The disease is incurable, but complications can be prevented: affected individuals need insulin injections and have to regularly monitor their blood sugar levels (Gillespie, 2006), adjusting the insulin doses accordingly. The disease is incurable, but the blood sugar levels can be kept steady. The management of the condition is therefore complex and requires daily efforts and commitment from patients and caregivers (Boman et al., 2017). Furthermore, evidence shows that certain autoimmune diseases (such as thyroiditis and celiac diseases) and mental health conditions (such as depression and eating disorders) tend to occur more frequently among individuals affected by T1DM, adding a layer of complexity to the treatment of these patients (Kollipara, 2010).
Migrants and individuals from ethnic minorities affected by T1DM might be exposed to extra hardship resulting in higher risk of complications. This article will provide an overview of the factors contributing to the vulnerability of these populations.
Prevalence and regional variability
The incidence of T1DM varies widely between countries, ranging from 0.1 cases (China and Venezuela) to >40 cases (Sweden and Finland) per 100,000 persons per year (Hussen, Persson, & Moradi, 2013). The regional variability of the disease is believed to be only partially explained by the different distribution of genetic risk factors (Dzidzonu, Skrivarhaug, Joner, & Moger, 2016; Hussen, Moradi, & Persson, 2015). The risk of developing T1DM tends to increase in individuals who migrate from low to high-risk areas, indicating that environmental components can act as triggers in genetically predisposed individuals. Factors such as change in diet and exposure to viral infections may play a role in enhancing a migrant’s risk of developing the disease (Bodansky, Staines, Stephenson, Haigh, & Cartwright, 1992; Craig, Nair, Stein, & Rawlinson, 2013; Fredheim et al., 2014; Hussen et al., 2015), but the interplay between genetic and environmental factors is still poorly understood (Hussen, Yang, Cnattingius, & Moradi, 2013; Rasmussen et al., 2014; Söderström, Åman, & Hjern, 2012).
T1DM in migration contexts
Several social and psychological stressors associated with migration can add a burden to the already complex management of the disease. These stressors include socioeconomic status, access to care, language barriers, acculturation, literacy and mental health (Gandhi, Baranowski, Anderson, Bansal, & Redondo, 2016; Sunni et al., 2018). In particular, low socioeconomic status is associated with 2-3 times higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and death (resulting from complications of diabetes or cardiovascular conditions, such as heart attack and stroke) among patients with T1DM (Rawshani, Svensson, Rosengren, Eliasson, & Gudbjörnsdottir, 2015). Evidence shows that self-care – including following diet norms, measuring blood sugar levels and adjusting the dose of insulin when necessary – among young T1DM patients with a migration background is less successful than among young patients without a migration background. Developing culturally-sensitive programmes and empowering individuals with a migrant background to manage the disease is therefore important to improve patient outcomes (Boman et al., 2017; Gandhi et al., 2016).
Rigorous management of the disease is critical to prevent T1DM complications and maintain quality of life (Jaacks et al., 2012). In an increasingly multicultural world, cultural differences are essential features of disease management (Fredheim et al., 2014). As an example, food and eating habits are part of cultural identity, which may vary across national origins. The management of T1DM requires a change in dietary habits, which may contradict traditional practices, norms, and values related to food and eating patterns (Sunni et al., 2018), a fact that should be taken into account by health professionals when devising management plans. For example, carbohydrate counters may help the patients and their caregivers to be more aware of the food they are consuming, and the need for culturally-adapted materials to facilitate carbohydrate-counting is reported in the literature (e.g. picture-based tools including traditional foods) (Nasir & Narasimhan, 2016; Sunni et al., 2018).
Several studies describe worse control of the blood sugar level in T1DM patients with a migration background (Cadario et al., 2014; Jaacks et al., 2012; Söderström, Samuelsson, & Åman, 2016), suggesting a treatment gap. A higher incidence of DKA has also been reported among children with migration background (Fritsch et al., 2011). Particularly at risk for complications are those individuals who simultaneously use antipsychotic medications (Galler et al., 2015).
The role of health professionals in supporting T1DM management goes beyond merely informing patients and their families about correct diets and insulin intake and includes empowering the patients and guiding them towards the acceptance of the disease, in order to reach satisfactory adherence to therapy and prevent complications. When the patient is too young, involving family members in the care and educating them about the disease is crucial. Indeed, parents have a particularly important role in the management of the disease for younger children, with parental literacy associated with better health outcomes (DeWalt & Hink, 2009). On the other hand, adolescents tend to become gradually more independent and responsible for the self-management of their condition (Söderström et al., 2016) As discussed by Boman et al. (2017), type 1 diabetes is a disease that should be incorporated into the daily routines and self-image of the affected person. The authors describe four different attitudes shown by adolescents towards the disease: engulfment, rejection, acceptance, and enrichment. While the first two imply ignoring or refusing the illness and can lead to neglecting self-care, acceptance and enrichment are two positive attitudes associated with better adherence to the self-treatment norms described above. Education and counselling are therefore crucial to support and empower patients and their families, particularly among vulnerable populations such as ethnic minorities and migrant populations (Boman et al., 2017).
Lorenzo De Min
Lorenzo is a research assistant within the Migration group at United Nations University – Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (UNU-MERIT). He also collaborates with the local faculty of medicine, where he gives training sessions on “Access to care for migrants and refugees”, “Language barriers in healthcare” and “Patient-doctor communication”. Lorenzo holds an MD from the University of Milan and an MSc in Global Health from Maastricht University. Next to his main job, he contributes to the organisation of the Dutch Global Health Film Festival and collaborates as an editor with the Italian website Saluteglobale.it
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 DKA is a condition characterized by an excess of acid in the blood. When cells, due to lack of insulin, cannot use sugar as a source of energy, fat is used as an alternative fuel. However, burning fat results is the production of acids called ketones. Ketones accumulate in the blood and can lead to coma and death.