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The percentage of American teenagers with diabetes has soared. That's according to a new government report out today. NPR's Rob Stein reports on what it means.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Karlton Hill was only 12 years old when he found out he had diabetes. Even though he was still in the seventh grade, Karlton knew what diabetes was. He'd watched the disease destroy his great-grandmother's life.

KARLTON HILL: I was really upset. I cried. I didn't want any of this to happen to me. I was like, why is this happening to me?

STEIN: Doctors have been worrying for years that the obesity epidemic would lead to a diabetes epidemic among kids. Now, for the first time, researchers have direct evidence that those fears are coming true, that Karlton is far from alone. Here's Ashleigh May at the CDC.

DR. ASHLEIGH MAY: We found that 23 percent of teens have prediabetes or diabetes, as compared to 1999 when there were about 9 percent who had prediabetes or diabetes.

STEIN: May's talking about Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, a condition that until recently doctors almost never saw in kids. But that was before kids started putting on so much weight. According to the latest data from a big federal health survey that May analyzed, about one in five either have it or are starting to get it. Here's David Ludwig, a Harvard obesity expert.

DR. DAVID LUDWIG: That's a shockingly high figure that has dire implications to the health of this generation of children. This report really sounds the alarm.

STEIN: Diabetes can be a terrible disease. It can cause all sorts of other problems - blindness, nerve damage, heart attacks, strokes.

LUDWIG: It's one thing for an overweight or obese 55-year-old gaining an extra few pounds a year to develop diabetes at age 65 and then have a heart attack at 70. It's a very different thing if the clock starts ticking at age 10. Children have so many more years to suffer from the consequences of these serious medical problems related to obesity.

STEIN: So many other diseases that used to only hit older people could also start showing up in large numbers when people are in the prime of their lives.

LUDWIG: We are looking at the prospect of heart attack, stroke and kidney failure becoming common complications of young adulthood.

STEIN: The new study also found disturbingly high levels of other problems in kids that increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

LUDWIG: The impact of the epidemic will continue to mount for many years as this generation of children carry these increased risk factors into adulthood and carry the burden of chronic disease for so many years longer than has ever been the case in history.

STEIN: Researchers are especially concerned about the high rate of diabetes among teenage girls. Melinda Sothern of Louisiana State University says that could set up a vicious cycle for generations to come.

DR. MELINDA S. SOTHERN: These are teen girls, adolescent girls, who are going to become mothers in the next five to 10 years. And if their weight is not healthy, we're going to have another generation of these children with metabolic problems that lead to prediabetes and diabetes.

STEIN: To fight this trend, more and more children are facing a lifetime of struggling to keep their blood sugar under control. Vivian Fonseca at the American Diabetes Association says that will be hard on them and society.

DR. VIVIAN FONSECA: It requires a long period of medication use, strict diet, exercise and surveillance, all of which is quite expensive.

STEIN: Karlton Hill knows this.

HILL: Like, I'll open a book and I'll see what's happened to somebody else, and I really say, well - it'll kind of scare me for a second. And it'll be like, whoa that's, that could be me if I do something wrong. If I do one wrong move, that could end up being me.

STEIN: So he works hard to keep his diabetes under control. He jogs and does push ups every day and takes a diabetes drug. He's also super careful about what he eats. It's hard, but Karlton knows he had no other choice.

Rob Stein, NPR News.

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