When my son was two years old, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I’ve written before about the tense months and years following this diagnosis—about fearing for his survival and adopting on a new perception of food as a villain in his life. Today, however, I’d like to take a more positive look at this pernicious auto-immune disease, whose incidence is increasing every year. A handful of charitable organizations have made it their mission to provide assistance, care, and compassion to those impacted by Type 1 diabetes, often in low and middle-income countries. I want to focus on one such organization—Life for a Child.

About Life for a Child

Life for a Child is an Australian non-governmental group affiliated with the International Diabetes Federation. It provides insulin, syringes, blood glucose meters, and blood test strips for children and youth with diabetes, up to the age of 25. In areas with limited healthcare access or for populations without sufficient funds, Life for a Child’s distribution of these supplies is lifesaving. After all, a child with Type 1 diabetes whose family cannot afford insulin has only weeks to live

One of the most important tools in managing Type 1 diabetes is the blood glucose meter. Patients prick their fingers with a needle and then place a drop of blood onto a single-use strip. Within a few seconds, they get a number that tells them what their blood sugar count is. Doctors recommend that patients use at least four of these strips every day to ensure the insulin they are constantly injecting is neither too much nor too little. High blood sugars can lead to coma and will destroy eyes, kidneys, and other key systems; low blood sugars can lead to seizure and death within minutes. Without blood test strips, patients are flying blind, injecting a powerful drug without knowing what, precisely, it is doing. When my son was little and we still used the finger-prick method, we tested his blood sugar 10-12 times a day. 

No one knows exactly how much it costs to manufacture a blood glucose test strip, as pharmaceutical companies guard the secret carefully. I’ve seen estimates of 15 cents for the most advanced strips, but have been told that the more basic strips cost roughly four to five cents to make. Obviously, there is a lot of expensive research and development that goes into building the first strips and creating the initial manufacturing capacity. Once those upfront costs are sunk, however, the profits are surely enormous. 

Life for a Child in Uzbekistan

Purchasing a single blood glucose test strip in low-and-middle-income countries is often a massive expense. When I visited Bukhara, Uzbekistan for Life for a Child in June 2019, for example, the cost of one basic, no-frills strip at the local pharmacy was the equivalent of 40 cents. From point of manufacture to point of sale, the price had gone up roughly tenfold. The average Uzbek annual household income in 2017 was 5.8 million Soms (UZS), roughly $712 USD. If an Uzbek child with Type 1 diabetes used four strips per day as recommended, the annual cost would be almost $570, a whopping 80% of an average Uzbek family’s income. 

In 2019, there were roughly 3200 children in Uzbekistan with Type 1 diabetes, and Life for a Child was helping 400 of those with blood glucose test meters and strips donated by a manufacturer based in Florida. Life for a Child’s local partners were government hospitals and clinics, as the country’s public health system is comprehensive and relatively well-run. Life for a Child sends the strips overland by truck from Turkey, and the government then distributes to the clinics. 

James Ron - Map of the Uzbekistan research

Life for a Child in Tajikistan

In January 2019, I traveled to Dushanbe, the capital of adjacent Tajikistan. There, I learned that Life for a Child supplies 1,000 children – the country’s entire juvenile patient population – with all their insulin needs. This landlocked country is much poorer than Uzbekistan, with a per capita GDP half that of its much larger neighbor. Once again, Life for a Child sends the supplies overland from Turkey, but in this case, delivery is more complex; insulin, as opposed to blood test strips, needs to be consistently refrigerated. If a vehicle or refrigeration unit malfunctions somewhere along the way in the vast expanses of Turkey, Georgia or Kazakhstan, the entire shipment needs to be junked. 

Life for a Child’s Track Record

In its 2018-19 annual report, Life for a Child wrote that it had provided one million syringes, 281,000 vials of insulin, and over four million blood glucose test strips that year to roughly 21,000 children in 42 countries. The group doesn’t just send supplies, however. It is also a thought leader, conducting and disseminating an enormous amount of top quality scientific research. I even participated, in a small way, in a handful of those studies with colleagues at the University of Minnesota and Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. 

Life for a Child reports that 86 percent of all donations go directly towards diabetes-related supplies, and I have total faith in that number. Their director, Dr. Graham Ogle, works out of his home, and is the most humble, hard-working and dedicated professional I’ve ever met. He travels the world incessantly from his base in Sydney (before COVID, of course), visiting partner clinics all around the world, along with manufacturers and donors in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. He takes all those 30-60-hour plane trips in the cheapest economy seats available, despite being well over six feet, and no longer a young man. I’ve never heard one word of complaint, and I’ve known him for over ten years. 

All families whose children have Type 1 diabetes are in the same boat. Some of us have decent life vests and oars, however, while others have very little, if anything, to work with. Life for a Child distributes oars, vests, and other vital equipment as best it can to those who need it most, even in the hardest to reach places.

It’s the most impressive small charity I’ve ever seen.