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Mike Rutherford: Ignorance about diabetes is rife

Wealth does not buy a winning ticket in the life lottery of Type 1 diabetes Wealth does not buy a winning ticket in the life lottery of Type 1 diabetes Nick Cunard

Mike Rutherford tells how his son’s life was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with the Type 1 form of the disease as a child.

Amid the constant kaleidoscope of headlines warning of a diabetes epidemic and the ongoing debate around the sugar tax it’s easy to forget that there are two quite different forms of the condition - and that’s a worry for the families of thousands of children who are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes every year.

Genetics play a part in both forms of the condition which causes blood sugar levels to become too high and can seriously damage the body’s organs, so it would be wrong to blame anyone for developing diabetes. But it can feel particularly unfair when it comes to those with Type 1 as, unlike Type 2, obesity and unhealthy habits such as lack of exercise are not risk factors. However ignorance is rife, as Mike Rutherford, a founding member of Genesis, knows all too well. 

His son Harry was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 11 years old. Mike says: "He always ate well, he was never overweight and he didn’t have a sweet tooth. But there are still people who think it’s caused by eating too much sugar; that it’s their own fault. It’s a very common misconception." 

Mike, 65, is the first to acknowledge that he has had a privileged life. He was a boarder at Charterhouse public school where he met Genesis members Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks and Anthony Phillips. The band, later joined by Phil Collins, went on to sell 150 million albums while Mike And The Mechanics, the band he set up as a "bit of fun" clocked up sales of more than 10 million.

When you are young it is so difficult Mike Rutherford

In 2009 his personal fortune was estimated to be £30million but wealth does not buy a winning ticket in the life lottery of Type 1 diabetes. The UK has one of the highest rates of Type 1 in the world – we rank fifth, behind Finland, Sweden, Saudi Arabia and Norway – although in many ways the autoimmune condition remains a mystery. 

Experts don’t know why the immune system goes haywire and attacks beta cells in the pancreas. Genes are a factor as it sometimes runs in families. Infections and other environmental factors also appear to play a part. Mike and his family were on holiday in France when Harry first had problems. 

He recalls: "We were skiing at Cheval and suddenly Harry had no energy. He was losing weight and peeing a lot." A few weeks later when Harry and Mike went on a bike ride, it became obvious something was seriously wrong. 

"Suddenly he had no energy at all, it was like he was walking through water. It’s a terrible shock to see someone that age so unwell." Mike, whose wife Angie has a brother who also has Type 1, says: "Although John had been diagnosed quite a few years earlier, Angie recognised the symptoms and realised it might be diabetes." 

They took Harry to hospital near their West Sussex home and tests confirmed he had diabetes. Mike says: "He was put on insulin straight away. And at the age of 11 his life was being turned upside down.

"When you are young it is so difficult. And as a parent you wish you could have it instead of them." Harry was fortunate to be diagnosed within six weeks of the first warning signs as Type 1 diabetes can lead to serious illness and even death if it is not picked up and treated quickly.

Mike's son Harry was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 11Mike's son Harry was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 11.

Despite the danger, the charity Diabetes UK warns that only nine per cent of parents are aware of the "4 Ts" that spell trouble – toilet, thirsty, tired and thinner. As a result, a quarter of the 2,000 children who develop the condition every year are already seriously ill by the time it is diagnosed. And as they have to manage the condition for longer, people with Type 1 could be at greater risk of heart disease, blindness and kidney disease.

Harry, who is now 28 and works as a music producer, has always been very sporty. Mike says this has helped him deal with the condition and as a result he has had only two or three ‘hypos’ (hypoglycaemic episode) where his blood sugars have slumped perilously low. Mike says: "He manages his levels pretty well but sometimes it just goes a bit upside down. 

"There is a terrible sense of frustration when you are doing everything right but your levels still go wrong and start yo-yoing, even though on paper everything has been done right."

That’s one of the reasons Mike is keen to raise awareness of 112, the emergency number for mobile phones which allows you to call for help, even if you have no credit or the phone is locked.

The number works in around 70 countries and calls are prioritised when reception is poor, so they will be picked up by the nearest mobile mast, regardless of your provider. You can also register to send a message for help via a text. Simply text the word ‘register’ to 999 and follow the instructions. When someone is having a ‘hypo’ it’s important they get something sugary immediately, which means the new sugar tax is bad news for those with Type 1. 

Chris Askew of Diabetes UK explains: "Many people with Type 1 use sugar-sweetened drinks to treat low blood glucose levels." The charity is taking part in consultations on the sugar tax so that it does not impact negatively on people with diabetes. Improved treatments, such as insulin which works very rapidly or over a long period, and injection pens and pumps which are easier to use or allow better control, have made things much easier.

And there is now real hope that islet transplants to restart the pancreas, or bioengineering to create an artificial pancreas, may free those with Type 1 diabetes from the need for daily injections. 

"You feel that a cure is not far away, but who knows?" says Mike.

For further information and to support Diabetes UK, please visit www.diabetes.org.uk

© Express, by Jane Symons

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