The world's biggest maker of insulin on Wednesday pledged to provide diabetes care, including free medication, to 10,000 children in African countries to combat a hidden killer.

Danish pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk said it had a moral obligation to save lives in places where insulin was too expensive for families and aid efforts have focused on more prominent diseases such as HIV-AIDS or malaria.

"Lots of children in the developing world are dying of diabetes when we have had a life-saving drug for 85 years," said Jean-Claude Mbanya, president-elect of the International Diabetes Federation, at an event in Paris to launch the Novo Nordisk project.

An estimated 250,000 children in developing countries under the age of 14 have type 1 diabetes. Some 38,000 of those children are in Africa.

If untreated, diabetes can cause cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, blindness and neurological damage.

Diabetes experts said one of the major problems was that the disease was not well known in poor countries. Often children taken to hospital in a diabetic coma were treated for dehydration or malaria.

"Because it's not on the radar in many facilities, you'll often find there is misdiagnosis and that is one of the reasons why mortality is very high among these children," said Kaushik Ramaiya, a diabetes specialist based in Tanzania.

Novo Nordisk's five-year programme will start in 2009 in Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Tanzania. It will then be extended to six other poor countries. The firm's initial financial commitment is $20-25 million.

The firm says it will not only distribute insulin but also train health workers to care for diabetes patients and build infrastructure so that the system will be sustainable. In the long term, the firm hopes governments will be able to take over.

"You can rest assured that we will be knocking on the doors of health ministries when the time comes," said Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Rebien Sorensen at the Paris launch.

He said that in an ideal world it should not be the job of a private company to provide such care, but neither governments nor families in very poor countries were in a position to do so.

"It's controversial for us as a company to enter this programme but the alternative is not acceptable," he said.

Asked what would happen after the first five years, Sorensen said that the company would not abandon any patient but would provide insulin to participants for their whole life.