At risk ... Dom Rowe with husband Marc Newman. Photo: Dean Sewell

At risk ... Dom Rowe with husband Marc Newman. Photo: Dean Sewell

Hospitals are struggling to cope with a surge in pregnant women with diabetes, with figures released today showing one in 20 is affected.

They are at risk of health problems including dangerously high blood-pressure, while their babies are more likely to be stillborn, born prematurely or by caesarean section and have high birth weight, according to figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

At-risk women should still undertake sensible exercise and ignore the myth they were “eating for two” and thus could eat whatever they wanted. 

The risk was particularly high among women with pre-existing type 1 or type 2 diabetes compared with women who developed gestational diabetes while pregnant, the Australian-first study found.

But hospital units set up to deal with diabetes in pregnancy were becoming swamped by women with gestational diabetes, said endocrinologist Glynis Ross.

“This is an absolutely huge burden both for the women and the health providers,” said Dr Ross, who was involved in the preparation of the report.

She has seen a three-fold increase in gestational diabetes in 20 years.

And while the national rate was about 5 per cent, in areas of Sydney such as Liverpool about 12 per cent of pregnant women were affected.

“Twenty years ago we would think having 14 women in a pregnancy clinic was a big number but we are running with between 80 and 100 now.”

Dom Rowe, 33, who is expecting her first child, a boy, has just undergone surgery for diabetes-related eye problems. Her day is carefully planned around meals, exercise and monitoring her blood sugar.

“I haven't had a full night's sleep in about six months because I have [to check] my blood sugar,” she said.

She also has to weigh everything she eats and avoid all fats, as they can impair her ability to absorb insulin.

The vice-president of the Australian Diabetes Society, Jenny Gunton, said the study confirmed everything diabetes specialists suspected but hoped not to be true. And the problem would only get worse.

More staff were needed for pregnancy clinics and more detailed information needed to be given to women about pregnancy planning and the prevention of gestational diabetes.

“The rate is already very high and getting higher,” she said. “We have an increasing population of [at-risk] ethnic groups, increasing rates of obesity and decreasing exercise.”

Increasing rates of older mothers could also be a factor.

While women usually recover from gestational diabetes after they give birth, they have a 50 per cent increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later on, she said.

At-risk women should still undertake sensible exercise and ignore the myth they were “eating for two” and thus could eat whatever they wanted.

The president of the Australian Diabetes Council, Neville Howard, said all forms of diabetes were on the increase.

“We are talking to medical, nursing and dietary groups about gearing up to cope with the diabetes epidemic,” he said.

Women with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes needed to prepare for pregnancy much more carefully than others.

“They have more complications with their pregnancy than women with gestational [or no] diabetes,” he said.

If they did not there was a risk the baby could die or be born with deformities, he said.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which the body kills insulin-producing cells, whereas type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder in which the body does not produce enough insulin and becomes resistant to what is produced.