Theresa May: the first prime minister with a discreet need for jelly babies

    12 July 2016

    To say that British politics is in a state of flux is rather like saying an otter’s pocket is a little bit wet. As Theresa May walks into Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time this week, she becomes the first to do so as someone who has type-1 diabetes and who will undoubtedly be carrying insulin, needles and blood testing equipment in whichever handbag she chooses to display to the public.

    Her story is an interesting one in that she was diagnosed in 2012, when she went to her GP feeling run down and with all the symptoms of a heavy cold. On questioning she admitted she had lost some weight, was feeling thirsty all the time and was passing more urine than normal. She put much of this down to her hectic schedule but a simple blood test showed that she was suffering from diabetes.

    Initially diagnosed as type-2 diabetes — which occurs in about 90 per cent of people with the problem — the tablet treatment she was given failed to work and she was subsequently found to have the less common type-1 diabetes, which is an autoimmune condition rather than one triggered by weight or lifestyle.

    She was started on insulin injections and she now injects herself four times a day while keeping a close watch on her blood sugar levels and what she is eating — not always easy when you’re a politician on the global stage.

    She has said that she is inspired by our greatest ever Olympian Sir Steve Redgrave, who also has type-1 diabetes and who says he ‘made the decision that diabetes was going to live with me — I wasn’t going to live with diabetes’. Both of them are excellent examples of why having the condition need be no barrier to achieving the very highest positions in life and should serve as an inspiration to younger people diagnosed with it who may be afraid as to what the future may hold for them.

    Unlike the common type-2 form, where the pancreas gland produces less insulin than the body requires, in type-1 diabetes the body attacks itself and in effect shuts the insulin-producing pancreas gland down, leading to no insulin being produced and causing high levels of sugar in the blood, which is potentially lethal.

    The only way someone survives in this case is to inject insulin into the body to replace what is missing. This can take a number of forms, including once-daily slow-release forms, insulin pumps attached to the body, or shorter-acting insulin which needs to be taken several times a day, as in May’s case. Fortunately, the march of modern technology means that this is as simple as carrying a pen-like injector that automatically gives a painless and correct dose of insulin when pressed on to the skin, and having rapid blood sugar test results instantly available.

    Somehow, I can’t see her putting jelly babies on her list of parliamentary expenses, but you can be certain they will be discreetly available should she need them if her blood sugar levels start to drop too low.

    She is now an expert at managing her condition, and will have found over time that strict adherence to treatment and her daily schedule is the key. Let us hope that such close attention to detail will carry over into how she runs her premiership.