1.7 million Australians have diabetes (diagnosed and undiagnosed)

1 Australian develops diabetes every 5 minutes

1 in 20 pregnancies is affected by diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic, life-long disease affecting more than a million Australians of all ages. The incidence of this disease is increasing and, even with daily insulin therapy, diabetic patients are at greater risk of serious complications including heart attack, stroke, eyesight damage and kidney disease. In fact the rise in deaths in Australia caused by kidney disease is though to be directly related to the rise in diabetes across the country.

The amount of sugar we have in our blood is controlled by insulin – a hormone that is produced in the pancreas – an organ that sits just behind your stomach. When we eat, food is digested and released into the blood. Insulin helps to move glucose (sugar) into the cells where it is converted into energy. When you have diabetes there is either no insulin being produced or the insulin produced doesn’t work efficiently. This means food can no longer be converted into energy and high levels of glucose stays in the blood.

How do you know if you have diabetes?

It’s important to know your body and know when things don’t seem right. Symptoms of diabetes can be so subtle that in Type 2 diabetes many don’t know they have the disease until complications occur.

Most common symptoms include:

  • Constant or unusual thirst
  • Needing to pass urine more often
  • Being hungry
  • Tiredness or lethargy
  • Itchy skin
  • Blurred vision
  • Poor healing of cuts or sores
  • Mood swings
  • Headaches

Diabetes can affect anyone at any age. It is most commonly thought of as 2 diseases Type 1 (or insulin dependent) and Type 2 Diabetes but there is also a third type called Gestational Diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes

In Type 1 Diabetes the body’s immune system creates antibodies that target and destroy the insulin producing or beta cells in the pancreas. With no insulin being produced there is a build up of glucose, which can cause serious damage to organs in the body including the kidneys. Symptoms can occur quite suddenly and can be life threatening.

As Type 1 Diabetes often occurs before the age of 40 it is also known as juvenile diabetes or early –onset diabetes. It is a less common form of diabetes but it will involve monitoring your blood glucose levels closely and having insulin injections for the rest of your life.

While research into what might cause the immune system to act this way continues, theories have included the possibility of a genetic predisposition to the disease and even environmental triggers for the onset of the disease.


Key to treating Type 1 diabetes is close monitoring of your blood glucose levels. This will involve having to perform a finger prick several times each day and placing a small drop of blood into a machine. Regular testing is required to ensure your blood glucose levels aren’t too high (hyperglycaemia) or too low (hypoglycaemia) – both pose serious short term and long term health risks for people with Type 1 diabetes.

Treatment will also involve providing your body with the insulin that the pancreas is unable to produce. Insulin can be delivered via injection or infusion pump to enable the body to convert the glucose in the blood to energy required for everyday activity. Infusion pumps work by delivering continuous amounts of insulin into your body via a small tube that sits under the skin. The tube is attached to an electronic pump that sits outside your body that can be manually controlled.

When you eat – food is converted into glucose therefore controlling your diet is also important and will require balancing the amount of carbohydrate you eat with the amount of insulin given at meal times.

While many Type 1 diabetics are well controlled with a good diet, regular monitoring and administration of insulin there are a few who are poorly controlled. Brittle or unstable diabetes results in wild swings in blood glucose levels – from very high to dangerously low. Sufferers develop hypoglycaemic unawareness where they no longer have symptoms of low blood glucose levels, which can result in coma and death if untreated.

In this group of patients islet cell transplantation can be an effective treatment and in some cases patients can have their diabetes “cured” where they no longer require daily insulin injections to control their disease.

Islet cell transplant involves taking the insulin producing pancreatic beta cells from a deceased donor, purifying and processing the cells and infusing into the recipient’s liver via the portal vein. In some cases a second infusion of donor cells may be required to produce the desired results.

There are a number of centres throughout the world currently performing islet cell transplants. In Australia there are three centres including The Queen Elizabeth Hospital where the very first South Australian transplant was completed in 2010. The team has since transplanted several more patients with a number showing improvement in their symptoms and blood glucose control and three experiencing complete reversal of diabetes. The first recipient is now beyond five years and remains insulin free.

For information on current islet cell transplantation research please visit our research page.

Type 2 Diabetes

It is thought that there are many Australians living with Type 2 Diabetes without knowing as symptoms can be attributed to other ailments. Type 2 Diabetes accounts for around 85% of all diabetes and is on the rise in Australia due in part to the increase in obesity. In Type 2 diabetes the body either doesn’t produce the required amount of insulin or the body’s cells don’t react to insulin.

Many Type 2 Diabetics can control the disease through maintaining a healthy diet, taking regular exercise and monitoring their blood glucose levels.

Gestational Diabetes

Woman Pregnant - gestational diabetes
Gestational diabetes affects 1 in 20 women during pregnancy.


Gestational diabetes affects 1 in 20 women during pregnancy most commonly in their second trimester – 14 – 26 weeks. The body can often not produce enough insulin to cope with high levels of circulating blood glucose. It can affect the developing baby so it needs close monitoring by your doctor. Often women who have gestational diabetes go on to develop type 2 diabetes later in life.

For information on current research into gestational diabetes please visit our research page.

It is best to have a regular health check with your GP to maintain good health and ensure early detection of any serious illness.