In a small family home in Cambodia, twelve-year-old Sok Vathana is engaged in a daily struggle against kidney failure. His childhood has been shaped by constant trips for dialysis, an essential treatment for a boy whose kidneys can no longer clean toxins from his blood.

Vathana’s family of six is steeped in hardship. His younger twin brother, Sok Vattanak, is also battling with health issues and the distress of impending dialysis treatments.

Each dialysis session Vathana undergoes costs $90, with medications and travel expenses to the hospital in Phnom Penh bumping the weekly total to around $400, explained their mother, Rorn Chamroeun.

“In times when I don’t have money, I have to make adjustments and seek treatment in the province instead,” she said.

Chamroeun realised in May that her eldest son’s health had seriously deteriorated. Doctors attributed his severe illness to an unhealthy diet and a congenital kidney condition.

“Initially, he started becoming pale and I couldn’t figure out the reason. The doctor said my eldest son has been living with a chronic disease since birth. Excessive consumption of canned drinks has worsened his condition, resulting in severe kidney damage,” she reflected.

Even with regular dialysis, Vathana’s condition remains precarious, his blood sugar levels increasingly unstable. Yet Chamroeun remains resolute in her fight to save her son.

“I don’t have the means to afford a kidney transplant. Please, philanthropists, help my son,” she pleaded.

Data on sugar levels in popular beverages in the Cambodian market shows a troubling reality.

Most drinks, particularly popular among youngsters, contain between 20 to 25 grams of sugar per can. However, medical studies suggest a healthy sugar intake should not exceed 25 grams per day.

Earlier this year, UNICEF released a report revealing an unhealthy food environment for children in East Asia and the Pacific, including Cambodia.

More than one in three teenagers consume at least one sugary drink per day, with more than half eating fast food at least once a week.

The ubiquitous advertising promoting low-quality food on every platform, from billboards to online, contributes significantly to this trend.

Nheb Angkeabos, director of National Pediatric Hospital in Phnom Penh, noted that childhood diabetes is on the rise due to both genetic factors and poor diet.

“Complications in children are the same as in adults; there is no difference. Nerve problems, as well as other issues related to learning and overall well-being, make life challenging for children with diabetes,” he warned.

The veteran paediatrician advised parents to monitor their children’s diet and encourage more physical activity, especially if their children are overweight.

“Parents should prevent their children from consuming excessive amounts of sweet-tasting canned foods, regardless of their type. Consuming such sweet foods can lead to long-term health issues, even if someone doesn’t have diabetes at a young age, it can develop later in life,” he emphasised.

The Global Nutrition Report of 2020 reveals that over one-eighth of Cambodian children between the ages of 5 to 19 are overweight or obese.

This growing trend has led to an increase in deaths from non-communicable diseases. Moreover, the prevalence of adult diabetes in Cambodia has risen from 5.2 per cent in 2010 to 6.4 per cent in 2019. Over half of all people with diabetes are unaware of their condition.

Rorn Chamroeun, despite her family’s financial difficulties, remains determined to support her son’s treatment. But she is uncertain about how long they can sustain this financial burden.

“Mothers, please take good care of your children’s health. My own have developed a habit of consuming canned drinks almost daily, sometimes even more than one can,” she advised.

Her words serve as a warning to other parents.

“As children grow older, they become capable of finding their own food. With my time consumed by baking cakes and Vathana attending school, I’m not always able to monitor what they eat,” Chamroeun explained.

The International Diabetes Federation’s assessments paint a grim picture for Cambodia. In 2019, diabetes was responsible for 22 deaths each day. The financial burden was also significant, with each patient spending about $238 annually. This led to a total treatment cost of around $102 million for all diabetic patients.

The situation is projected to worsen. By 2030, diabetes treatment costs in Cambodia could rocket to $145.9 million.

In addition, the fatality rate from this disease rose to 8,325 in 2022, and nearly 500,000 people have been diagnosed with diabetes.

The rates of diabetes among children and teenagers are especially alarming, and the root of the problem is clear. Unhealthy diets, saturated with sugary, canned drinks and fast foods, are increasingly common among the young population.

Angkeabos sees the dire need for changes in dietary habits. He reiterated: “If children develop diabetes at an early age, the consequences occur earlier in life due to the incurable nature of the disease. Long-term health issues are a risk even for those who aren’t diabetic at a young age. It is important to avoid and reduce the consumption of canned foods and sugary drinks from now on”.

Childhood diabetes has become a public health crisis across the developing world. It places an economic and emotional strain on families like Sok Vathana’s, and the long-term health consequences for these children can be severe.

The battle against childhood diabetes is complex. It requires interventions at all levels of society, from government policy changes to individual lifestyle modifications.

In the meantime, families like Chamroeun’s hold on to hope and continue their fight, one day at a time.

Chamroeun implores: “I beg you, help my son. Parents, look after your children well. I’ve seen the outcomes first hand. Ensure they eat freshly prepared meals. Stay away from processed and canned foods. They’re harmful”.

The battle continues, but with education, awareness, and systemic changes, there is hope for a healthier future for children like Vathana and Vattanak.