There was a time when a mere mention of high blood pressure and its sister illness, diabetes, brought to mind a grown man or woman in their 50s or 60s, but not anymore. Children as young as seven years, are being diagnosed with the illness, write Titus Kakembo and Priscilla Butera
Moses Katende is a visibly healthy looking child, but contrary to appearance, he suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, the former leading to the latter. Hypertension is not common among children, but it is not absolutely absent.
He is a few months away from celebrating his eighth birthday, but Katende weighs 60kg. When he made seven last year, his appetite suddenly went up. Considering that she had always forced him to eat, his mother, Sara, was excited. But soon, she would have cause to worry.
“It seemed to me that he was gaining weight overnight. One morning, I noticed that my son weighed more than the average child his age. It was unsettling,” she says.
“I talked to my neighbours about it, but they rubished my concerns and told me to be glad Katende looks like a rich man’s child. I was not convinced, so I took him to see the doctor,” she adds.
At the clinic, since there were no visible signs of an illness, no tests were done. Sara says the only diagnosis she was given was that her son was simply over-fed and that there was no cause for alarm.
“With time, I became even more worried. My child was always fatigued and thirsty. He took about four litres of water daily and was not as active as the other children. I resolved to take him to another clinic,” she narrates.
At the clinic, the doctor acknowledged that Katende was not healthy. His weight was not normal and the signs signalled that he could have developed diabetes. The doctor referred her to another hospital.
Sara was surprised, almost shocked. A seven-year-old boy could not possibly suffer from diabetes! As far as she was concerned, it was an illness for men and women in their 50s and 60s, rich ones at that.
“I did not believe the doctor. I was more inclined to believe that my son had been bewitched,” she says.
At the hospital, tests were done and the revelation was even more alarming. Not only was it confirmed that Katende was diabetic, it was discovered that he also had high blood pressure.
“I was devastated. To me, that meant costs and misery for my son for the rest of his life. I had to ask for assistance from friends and family, which I still do to supplement my small earnings, so I can cover my son’s medical bills,” Sara says.
Sara has since educated herself about diabetes and her son has improved.
“I am glad that right from the start, I did not ignore the signs. The doctor told me that my child could have developed high blood pressure because he was born prematurely,” she says.
Types of hypertension
There are two types of hypertension: primary and secondary.
Primary (essential) hypertension is high blood pressure that occurs on its own, without an underlying condition. This type of high blood pressure occurs more often in older children and adolescents. The risk factors for developing essential hypertension are:
Being overweight or obese
A family history of high blood pressure
Type 2 diabetes High cholesterol
Secondary hypertension is high blood pressure that is caused by an underlying health condition. This is the type of high blood pressure that is more common in young children.
When to see a doctor
If your child has a condition that can increase the risk of high blood pressure — including premature birth, low birth weight, congenital heart disease and certain kidney problems — blood pressure checks may begin during infancy. Talk to your child’s doctor, who will recommend frequent tests.
Even if your child does not have these underlying conditions, you can make these checks part of a routine doctor’s appointment, starting when your child is three years old.
“We are receiving more young hypertension sufferers because the children, like their parents, eat lots of junk foods that are full of fats; they exercise less and consume lots of salt,” says Dr. Abdu Kisekka, a doctor at Mulago Hospital.
“Walking distances are covered by family cars, school vans, boda bodas and taxis.
During leisure time, the children are planted on sofa sets, watching TV or making friends on computers. They eat lots of chips and sausages. No wonder high blood pressure is on the rise in children,” Kisekka notes.
According to online sources, there is no simple target blood pressure reading that indicates high blood pressure in all ages for children, because what is considered normal blood pressure changes as children grow.
High blood pressure in children younger than 10 years old is usually caused by another medical condition, but can develop for the same reasons it does in adults — being overweight, eating a poor diet and not exercising.
The site recommends that lifestyle changes, such as eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising more, can help reduce high blood pressure in children. But, for some children, medications may be necessary.
Dr. Margaret Mungherera, president of the Uganda Medical Association, advocates regular exercising.
“Current guidelines recommend that people exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, maintain normal weight, reduce consumption of salt and increase potassium intake,” she stresses.
“Parents should indulge their children in regular exercise, which helps keep the arteries elastic,” she says.