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Researchers have long suspected a link between enterovirus infections and the development of type 1 diabetes. In a report published in the December 1999 issue of Diabetes Care, a team of Finnish and Lithuanian scientists has uncovered more evidence to support this.
Finland has the highest incidence of type 1 diabetes in the world, with over 40 out of 100,000 under-15 children diagnosed annually. Yet nearby Lithuania, a much poorer country, has a significantly lower rate, with only 7 out of 100,000 children diagnosed. Why the discrepancy? Led by Heikki Hyoty, MD, PhD, at the University of Tampere, Finland, the scientists compared enterovirus and islet cell antibody* levels between 1,049 Lithuanian children and 3,651 Finnish children. Enteroviruses are very common and usually produce mild, flu-like symptoms in the upper respiratory tract. They are transmitted via a fecal-oral route.
When tested, the Lithuanian children had much higher enterovirus antibody levels than the Finnish children, suggesting that these infections were more common in Lithuania. Ironically, the low rate of enterovirus infections in Finland means that Finnish women have lower levels of protective enterovirus antibodies to pass on to their children, thus leaving them more vulnerable to developing type 1 diabetes.
* Islet cell antibodies: The presence of these antibodies is one of the earliest indications that a person is undergoing the immune destruction of the pancreatic beta cells and will probably get clinical type 1 diabetes.
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