SALT LAKE CITY — Like most 10-year-olds, Tesch West believed she was invincible. It was also at that age when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
"It was a daunting diagnosis, a time when you basically face your own mortality," she said. West recalls taking voracious notes as a young patient in the hospital, hoping she could overcome the disease that would define her from that day forward.
"'Don't complain, find solutions' has just been my way of life," the now-21-year-old youth ambassador for the American Diabetes Association said Wednesday. Her goal, akin to many who also suffer with the disease, is for research to find a cure.
But until then, she works to educate the more than 177,000 Utahns living with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, including an estimated 47,000 adults who don't yet know they have it. Diabetes has sparked an international pandemic, with more than 286 million victims around the world.
If the current growth trend of the disease continues, one in three adults will have diabetes by 2050, said Grant Sunada, spokesman for the Utah Department of Health's Diabetes Prevention and Control Program.
Type I diabetes results from the body's failure to produce insulin, while Type 2 is a metabolic disorder, resulting from the body's inability to make enough insulin or properly use it. A growing number of children and adolescents are developing Type 2 diabetes, a form of diabetes that is generally and has historically been diagnosed among adults.
Some individuals don't experience the symptoms of increased frequency of urination, unusual thirst and extreme hunger, unexplained weight loss or extreme fatigue and irritability, Sunada said. So it is important, he said, for everyone to foster healthy lifestyles, including eating more fruits and vegetables and daily exercise of 30 minutes or more.
"Each of us can take small steps to prevent or control diabetes," he said. A family history of the disease, being a member of an ethnic minority, increasing age, inactive lifestyle and unhealthy diets can be risk factors for diabetes.
"Taking care of ourselves is essential to living long and healthy lives," Sunada said.
While on military service in the Philippines during World War II, Bill England said he was using the bathroom all night and "drinking gallons of water" throughout the day. Many discounted his behaviors, blaming it instead on the hot, humid weather conditions of the southeast Asian country.
England, former owner of CR England Trucking, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes shortly after returning to the Beehive State. He's been living with diabetes for nearly 70 years but has seen much progress in treatment in his lifetime.
Research has led to more efficient management of diabetes using insulin pumps and disposable needles. It's a far cry from boiling glass syringes every day and getting blood sugar tests only in a doctor's office, which is what England used to do.
"There's been a lot of effort," England said. "They're trying hard to meet the challenge to find a cure. Maybe a little prayer would help."
Included in the increasing numbers of Utahns afflicted with diabetes is a large portion of Pacific Islanders. While 7.2 percent of all Utahns have diabetes, 15.5 percent of the adult Pacific Islander population in the state has fallen victim.
West Valley City hosts the greatest number of the minority populations with diabetes in the country, second only to Honolulu, with 4,750 diagnosed, according to health department data.
Ivoni Nash, executive director of the National Tongan American Society, said she worries about her people but does what she can to inspire them to live healthier lifestyles after relocating to the United States.
"We grow our own food in Tonga," she said, adding that fast food is much harder to come by in the islands of the Southern Pacific. Nash said a lack of health insurance and language differences serve as barriers to many Pacific Islanders obtaining the proper treatment for their ailments, including diabetes, which afflicts 44 percent of the Tongan population in Utah.
Sunada said health care costs to treat diabetes surpass $174 billion nationally every year, and close to $1 billion annually in Utah.
If a diagnosis is delayed, Type 2 diabetes can gradually damage a person's blood vessels and eyesight, as well as the feeling in fingertips and toes. Without treatment, numbness and injury in the extremities can lead to infection and amputation, Sunada said.
"We are at a diabetes breaking point with more and more children and adults of all ethnicities being diagnosed each year," said Laura Western, executive director of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Utah chapter. "We want the entire Utah community to know they don't have to stand silently and watch this merciless disease take over their lives. They can take an active role in preventing, treating and curing diabetes. It is now more important than ever to know the causes, its symptoms and steps in prevention."
Officials encourage all Utahns to take the stairs instead of the elevator, when available; incorporate additional vegetables into each meal; visit a doctor regularly; and get involved with local chapters for education and advocacy work.
Until a cure is found, prevention is the only way to combat the growing prevalence of the disease, said Western, who lives in Cottonwood Heights. She hopes to go to law school after graduating from the University of Utah and work in nonprofit advocacy, to continue helping organizations get the attention they need to find a cure for diabetes.
"It doesn't affect individuals alone," she said, adding that friends, family, caregivers and the community are all impacted by the disease.