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The scale of the North East's childhood obesity problem

This week, we are taking a close look at childhood obesity in our series 'Focus on Obesity.' Photo: ITV News

We know that more than a third of children in the North East are overweight or obese when they reach the end of primary school - and now we can reveal more evidence of the most extreme cases of childhood obesity in our region.

We have discovered that a child from Newcastle had rare weight loss surgery in 2015, and that several dozen children, including one as young as eight, have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in the region over the last five years.

Watch today's coverage:

Last week, the government announced plans for a sugar tax on soft drinks to try to combat what has been labelled an "epidemic" and a "national health emergency."

This week, our series 'Focus on Obesity' will look at the scale of the problem in the North East, its causes and consequences - and what can be done about it.

One in three children affected

The North East has one of the highest levels of obesity in the UK, with unhealthy lifestyles linked to the decline of heavy industry and significant deprivation.

When it comes to our children, according to figures from the National Child Measurement Programme 2014/15:

  • 23.7% of 4 to 5-year-olds in the North East were overweight or obese - higher than the England average of 21.9%
  • 35.9% of 10 to 11-year-olds in our region were overweight or obese - higher than the national average of 33.2%

The North East is rivalled only by London and the West Midlands in terms of childhood obesity rates.

Children between 6 and 12 years old attend a fitness class in Stanley, County Durham. Credit: ITV News

Michelle Garton started Get Fit North East in 2006 - focused on helping adults get healthy through exercise.

In the last two years, the demand for children's fitness classes has rocketed, so the company now has dozens of youngsters coming along to its twice-weekly 'Teens Fit Camp' and 'Kids Fit Camp' classes.

She says an increasing number of youngsters at the classes are overweight or obese.

Starting early

The health complications from obesity often take effect in the longer-term, leading to serious health problems in adulthood and later life. Being overweight or obese greatly increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. Obesity is said to cost the NHS around £5.1 billion per year in treating such conditions.

The childhood obesity 'epidemic' has provoked warnings that today's children will die before their parents' generation.

At the childhood weight management unit at Sunderland Royal Hospital, more than 100 new patients are referred each year, and more than 400 young people come back for review.

Senior Specialist Dietitian Tracy Webb says: "if we don't start addressing the problems that we have with our children, then we're going to have a population of very overweight adults - with the complications and the costs that will bring to the NHS and to wider society as well."

Extreme cases

We submitted Freedom of Information requests to the NHS hospital trusts in the North East and found evidence of some of the most extreme cases of childhood obesity in the region:

  • A child from Newcastle, aged under 18, underwent weight loss surgery in 2015

Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said this was an exceptional case, and offered no further information, for reasons of confidentiality.

Such treatment is thought to be rare in the UK. The other five trusts that responded said they do not offer weight loss surgery to under-18s. NHS guidelines describe it as a "last resort for children who are severely morbidly obese".

  • A child aged just eight was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes under the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust in 2013

They were among 39 children aged under 18 diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes over the last five years, according to the responses of four trusts in the North East.

Four children aged under 10 have also been admitted to hospital in Sunderland with the condition in the last five years.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body doesn't produce enough insulin to function properly, or the body’s cells don't react to insulin. Credit: PA

Type 2 diabetes is closely linked to being overweight - and usually occurs in people over the age of 40. Cases in young children have been reported, particularly in the USA, as being triggered by extreme weight problems.

Diabetes can ultimately result in blindness, kidney failure and limb amputations.

Damage done

Many young people are already facing the consequences of their excess weight - ranging from bullying and psychological issues, to health problems.

Luke Frost is now 26 and from Thornaby on Teesside. He started drinking a lot of fizzy drinks at 13, he became addicted and reached 27 stone last year.

Luke used to drink 2 bottles of Coca Cola, and four Rockstar energy drinks each day - more than ten times his daily sugar allowance. Credit: ITV News

He now has gout arthritis - which results in swelling and severe pain in his joints. He has to take medication every day and, although he is now trying to lose weight, it is a lifelong condition.

'Focus on Obesity'

We will have a full report and analysis, at the start of our series 'Focus on Obesity', tonight at 6pm on ITV News Tyne Tees.

On Tuesday, we will look at some of the factors contributing to high levels of childhood obesity in the North East, particularly changes to our lifestyles.

On Wednesday, we'll be considering the solutions - including taking a close look at the government's plans for a sugar tax.

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