Children's Health Issues in the UAE
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Children's Health Issues in the UAE

The United Arab Emirates is a region of health contradictions. The last fifty years has witnessed a period of extraordinary growth and development that has catapulted the region to become a major economic player and improved the quality and life expectancy of its residents to international standards. But there are causes for concern. We look at some of the more common risks to children’s health in the region.

The good news: Advanced healthcare services have caused infant and maternal mortality rates to plunge in the last few years to levels on a par with the United States. Life expectancy is increasing overall too and there’s been a sharp decline in many communicable diseases in recent years, with the eradication of Polio, the virtual eradication of Measles, and HIV/AIDS seeing very low levels of infected cases. Furthermore, according to the World Health Organization there is also a ‘firm conviction among national health decision makers and professionals for health sector reform, health financing reform and quality assurance’. It’s an encouraging picture and one that bodes well for the country’s ongoing healthcare improvements.

But there are challenges, most notably in the areas of non- communicable diseases and childhood health. With such rapid advances there comes a trade-off, and it is precisely this success that has contributed to many of the UAE’s health problems. Lifestyle- related issues are one of the main causes for concern in the region, with obesity and its related complications being cited as a leading cause of illness and death.

Over abundance of fast food, lack of exercise due to extreme heat, and a cultural predilection that equates a slim physique with poverty, has seen obesity rates skyrocket in children in recent years. It’s a familiar tale in China, another rapidly developing country, which has seen double-digit growth in a spectacularly short space of time; and the ‘little emperor’ mentality is in danger of, quite literally, killing with kindness.

The problems associated with obesity are well documented; diabetes, hypertension, cardio vascular and bronchial issues can all be attributed to a high BMI (Body Mass Index). Usually viewed as an adult problem, the region’s healthcare professionals are seeing a prolific rise in the
number of children being treated for obesity and related illnesses, and has prompted many to take proactive action.

Alarmed by the sharp increase of obesity-related illness, the Canadian Specialist Hospital (CSH), one of Dubai’s largest private hospitals, recently launched a campaign ‘Act Now’ to raise awareness in the community for the need for healthier lifestyle choices. The program includes various initiatives and events aimed reducing the burden of chronic illness in the community.

The statistics paint a worrying picture.

A study carried out in Dubai as part of a ‘Beat Obesity’ Campaign found that 32 % of school children are overweight or obese. The survey; a Landmark Group initiative, organized in collaboration with the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) and Zulekha
Hospital, will eventually cover a total of 18 private and government schools across the city. Campaigns will be held in another 100 schools to spread awareness about childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes.

These statistics are echoed in another recent study by Department of Pediatrics, Zayed Military Hospital, Abu Dhabi that surveyed 1440 students aged between 6 and 19 years of age, from 246 schools across Abu Dhabi. A staggering 18.9% were obese. A further breakdown analysis of just UAE nationals revealed 19.8% of those children were obese. Over 60% of all children surveyed had a BMI above the CDC 50th percentile. More worryingly, blood pressure ‘significantly increased’ with BMI percentile.

It’s clear this represents a ticking time bomb for the region but with education and continued efforts to raise awareness and change habits, it is one that will, hopefully, be diffused before things reach truly epidemic proportions.

Asthma is increasingly on the rise too, with one in five children across the UAE suffering from this chronic respiratory condition. A 2010 study by Dubai’s Rachid Hospital on 200 asthmatics found that 64% had suffered from ‘Sudden severe attacks’ in the previous year, and 52.8%
of the children had missed school as a result; the largest single factor in school absences in the region.

The causes are thought to be largely due to airborne particles such as construction dust, sand and pollen from palm trees, and, particularly, from all the grasses that have been transplanted to the region to create a more verdant environment. These non-native plants produce more aggressive pollen in order to overcome the potentially hostile environment, bad news for asthma sufferers. Going in and out of air con is another culprit, and is particularly hazardous to asthma sufferers if black mold forms on the inside of a unit.

It is often difficult to diagnose certain types of asthma and many parents simply do not realize that a persistent nagging, nighttime cough, for instance, could, in fact, be asthma. Furthermore, where expatriates are concerned, it can remain dormant in the genes until exposed to a
different climate, so it’s important for parents to be vigilant, to ensure their children attend regular health checks, and that their insurance covers this. It is also very common for asthma sufferers in the region to discontinue medication, sadly a habit that is more common amongst adolescents, which can lead to serious problems, even death. Helping parents to manage their children’s condition is now a priority and the ‘Asthma Friendly School Program’ was introduced two years ago as a joint initiative of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, to provide a comprehensive asthma management program for all schools.

The region’s dental hygiene habits are coming under scrutiny too. A mass health screening of schoolchildren by Seha, the Abu Dhabi health services company, of nearly 26,000 schoolchildren in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Al Gharbia, revealed that two-thirds had tooth decay. In an interview with The National newspaper on the findings, Dr Smitha Ninan, who runs the Taj Dental Centre, said education should begin long before children start school. "A very important factor is that most parents ignore routine dental visits." Dr Dinan also went on to say "In the Northern Emirates the water has a fluoride level which is slightly on the high side. Ingesting too much fluoride at a young age can lead to a weakening of the enamel, discoloration and, eventually, tooth decay.”

The same survey revealed 15% of children had abnormal vision, 7% had abnormal hearing and a third were anemic.

Alarming though many of these figures may seem, authorities across the region are sitting up and taking notice and, with the help of the private sector, there appears to be a concerted effort to tackle the region’s problems with education, new guidelines and the standardization of tests and screenings.

The Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD), for instance, has recently introduced a set of standards to govern medical checks for healthy children up to the age of six-years-old. The standards, which will be implemented across all healthcare facilities in the emirate by the end of March 2013, include guidelines about their vaccination schedules and monitoring children’s growth and development between the age of one-week-old and six-years-old. Crucially, in case an expatriate child aged between one-week-old and six-years-old does not have insurance coverage, parents can still avail of the ‘Well Child Visit’ for their children at any public healthcare facility operated by the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (SEHA), but it pays to ensure the whole family is
adequately covered for all healthcare eventualities.

At a national level, UAE’s Ministry of Health and other government agencies have formed a ‘National Nutrition Committee’ to draft a national strategy for reducing obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases. The UAE draft strategy – which is being developed with support from WHO – will focus on health and nutrition education, improve food consumption patterns with more focus on vegetables and fruits, food fortification with micronutrients, food labeling and marketing and school feeding programs.

All steps in the right direction, but if children are the future, then the UAE certainly has much food for thought to ensure theirs is a bright one.


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