Outbreak

No one knows for sure what causes type 1 diabetes. It is partly genetic (sufferers have predispositions to autoimmune diseases in general), but the condition itself is also triggered by one or more environmental agents. After Ann Marie Kreft’s son, Gus, age seven, was diagnosed a year and a half ago, she dedicated herself to finding out why, exactly, her son developed the disease—and why, exactly, so many other kids living nearby had it, too. The state does not keep a registry of diabetic children, so Kreft, with the help of other concerned parents, started compiling her own. What she found is that something unsettling is going on in the suburbs of Boston. And though it has taken a while, she is no longer the only one who sees trouble in the data she’s collected.

In the medical community, there’s a general sense that diabetes diagnoses are increasing everywhere, with the Centers for Disease Control estimating that one out of every 4,166 children under the age of 20 can now expect to develop the disease. What’s happening in Massachusetts is alarming, but for a slightly different reason: Children are being diagnosed within weeks or months of one another, some of them living within a close geographic range. According to Kreft’s figures, seven have been diagnosed within a two-mile radius encompassing Weston and Wellesley. There have been five new diagnoses in just 10 months in Concord. Five children have been diagnosed on one 30-house street in Plymouth. A Boston University journalism professor, Elizabeth Mehren, recently e-mailed Kreft about her son, who was diagnosed within six months of another kid from the same Hingham street; a third child on the street had also been diagnosed around that same time, as had one on the street perpendicular. Suburban moms from Walpole to Marshfield, Westford to Belmont, tell Kreft that they are worried about their child, their neighborhood, their town.

Kreft, a 46-year-old housewife, has a lithe frame, straight blond hair, and an Erin Brockovich vigor about her. Her familiarity with diabetes extends beyond her son’s diagnosis: Her father died of complications from the disease when she was 17 years old. His drawn-out death—from kidney failure, in the end—was devastating to watch. Though Kreft herself was spared the disease, she spent her teenage years worrying that her future children would develop it; she’d heard an old wives’ tale that diabetes skips a generation. Once fully into adulthood, however, and certainly by the time she fell in love with Tim Ramsey, a chemist, who would later become her husband, that fear receded, and she fell into her life’s routines. Then one day in September 2007, when Gus was seven, he needed to pee every 10 minutes. He also could not stop eating—devouring a third breakfast and asking for a fourth. She understood immediately that her son had her father’s disease, and the next day, after a blood test, and out of sight of Gus, she bawled at the dining room table. When the doctors at Children’s Hospital later tried to assuage her fears, she wanted to pummel them. She knew too well.

Kreft’s need to understand why Gus had been handed this fate led her first to the Internet. She also started a charity, Treats for the Troops, in which kids donate the Halloween candy they cannot eat to be sent to soldiers in Iraq. Before the charity’s inaugural event, she learned of a neighborhood family whose daughter had recently received a type 1 diagnosis. Two months later, Kreft heard of a boy down the road with the disease. The month after, another boy six houses down. "It just started to get more and more strange," she says. "And then every time we got a new diagnosis, I felt it all over again. That terrible punch in the stomach." She fixated on the unknown environmental trigger. What the hell is out there that is making all these kids sick?

When she heard about Walker Allen, Kreft felt she could use the high-profile case to make the public aware of the growing threat in her neighborhood. She wrote a pleading letter to the Boston Globe, which the paper published on July 17. "Something’s not right here," she wrote. "These many diagnoses, in this tight proximity in this short period, are way out of the norm. We would be grateful if a researcher tried to figure out what’s going on."

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  • Ingrid

    My child has had diabetes for many years. For a small town like Medfield, I always though something was wrong, when each year there were more and more kids visiting the school nurses office for lunch time blood testing.

  • Athena

    My child was diagnosed at the age of 6, and I also feel something is wrong considering when we moved to Leicester MA, my son as well as 6 others (if not more now) have been diagnosed at approx. the same age, same schools. Leicester MA should be on the outbreak list as well. I know the other mothers would agree as well. (Majority, does not run in the families, and not mine). Love this article and would love to get in touch with anyone in this article.

  • Lisa

    My daughter is 1 of 10 kids (we know of) that have juvenile diabetes living in Acton. She was diagnosed almost 2 years ago, just after her 5th birthday. I too would like to get in touch with someone in this article.

  • Athena

    The diabetics with type 1 is much more than 6 children, and it's a small town….could the arsenic in our well water be the cause? Our town is loaded with children getting diagnosed around the same age and area.

  • Laura

    This article is very interesting ~ as the mother of the child diagnosised at age 3 on the South Shore ~ I would love to talk to any researcher about this ~ my child's school had had type I's before but my child was the 1st one in the school at the same time and since then 4 others in our district have been diagnosised. Our small town has 4 elementary schools and the numbers are on the rise ~ any help our family can be – bring it on!!!

  • Sue

    Look to the increased vaccination schedule for our children. Read Dr. Classen's work … Look to the Prevnar vaccination. Vaccinations trigger type 1 diabetes in children!

  • Lisa

    I live in Methuen, MA. When my daughter was diagnosed 4 years ago, another boy in her school was diagnosed a day or two before her. When she went back to school she was one of 8 or 9 kids, over the years those older kids have moved on, for a while she was the only one, now she is 1 of I think 7 kids at the same school!!!! This is not a coincidence. Some kids move into the district with the diagnosis, but always in the late winter early spring months you will hear of one or two more children diagnosed with the same thing! Presently, I am going to try and find out in Methuen what is going on!

  • Lisa

    My daughter had that vaccination….it was about a year before she came down with diabetes. The doctors offered this new vaccine that helped to prevent the colds that cause ear infections and I took advantage of it….now I read up on Prenvar and what Dr. Classen says….OMG!!!!! I will call my pediatrician tomorrow to make sure I am certain of what I am talking about and I will post here.

  • Lisa

    It was Prevnar, August 03. Diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes March, 05!

  • Jill

    My 11 yr old was just diagnosed in May of this year. Two weeks after her best friend! There are many children in our small town Scituate. What is going on?

  • Lisa

    Contact me if you want to talk. I've been where you are….

  • Anonymous

    my daughter diagnosed age 23 coxsackie virus as child. no symptoms, fitness, however, blood test showed she has antibodies and runs high in morning 130. Comes down after eats in a.m. Dr. says because she has antibody she is type 1. Believe because she always exercised and ate healthy is why she wasn't symptomatic and kept under control. We are still very confused at what caused this and still is not symptomatic with thirst, urination, hunger, etc. On insulin only at bedtime, 5 units a1c 6.2 over past year. ? is she really diabetic. Lately eating certain foods increasing blood sugar at times 180 during day. Would like another opinion.

  • Pam

    My daughter was DX at age 6, 21 years ago. She was normal weight until age 4 when something triggered extreme weight gains while consuming less than 1000 calories a day. Then came the DX of Type I diabetes. Children for the past 30 years have been given routine dosages of antiobiotics for ear infections. My daughter took ampicillin almost every 6 weeks for ear infections. At age 6, she was given the pill form of penicillin. She broke out and within a month was in the hospital with diabetes. I will always believe these high dosages of antibiotics are the trigger for weight gain and diabetes in children.

  • Rose

    Question to all of you, as this story ran again the other night on tv, are any of your chldren who were diagnosed conceived by fertility methods? Just brainstorming to get to the bottom of this.

  • Pat

    Our 6th grade here in Marlborough, CT has 4 type 1’s out of 88 total (my son and another on our street diagnosed about 6-7 months apart). Stories of kids in our town getting a bug after swimming in the town lake and getting diabetes a few years later.

    • Steve

      I had 2 of 3 children diagnosed on South Shore both within months of each other. But they are 6 years difference in age. Something is going on and I don’t feel the right questions are being asked to get the answers.