Diabetes in Dubai

A diabetes epidemic is the number one health threat in Dubai. We find out more

The threat of a diabetes epidemic is top of the UAE’s list of health concerns right now, with some reports claiming that the disease is responsible for 75 per cent of deaths among nationals. That seems like an incredible figure. Heba Al Shaar, who is working on the Dubai Health Authority’s (DHA) diabetes awareness campaign, says we shouldn’t pay too much heed to big numbers like that. ‘I haven’t seen those figures,’ she tells Time Out. ‘[Concern about diabetes here is such that] sometimes there are rumours, sometimes people exaggerate about it. But it is a serious problem in the UAE.’ So serious that, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UAE is number two in the world for prevalence of diabetes, with 19.5 per cent of the local population suffering from the disease. More worryingly, a UAE Ministry of Health study conducted in 2000 found that approximately half of people with diabetes in the country were unaware that they had it.

This is exactly what makes the DHA’s campaign so important. Since it was launched this July, an impressive 5,000 UAE citizens have been screened as part of an ongoing initiative to provide free diabetes tests at various locations, from malls to health centres to sports clubs to hospitals. The campaign also aims to make more people aware of how the disease develops, encourage lifestyle changes to reduce incidences of diabetes, and provide information on how best to treat it. Dubai will also be hosting the World Diabetes Congress in 2011, presenting the UAE’s case in front of the world’s foremost experts. Al Shaar says the DHA’s campaign means that by the time 2011 rolls around, ‘We will have a story to tell; that’s the whole idea behind the campaign.’ As well as spreading awareness, data collected from the campaign’s screening initiative will help plan the UAE’s next steps to beating diabetes.

It’s not just UAE nationals who are at risk. Dr Maha Taysir Barakat, consultant endocrinologist and medical and research director at Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi, has said that ‘increased prevalence of diabetes among expats in the region as opposed to in their countries of origin indicate that genes are not the only factor… and that environment – lack of exercise with a high fat, high sugar diet – plays a major role as well.’ Al Shaar agrees: ‘Expats are living the same lifestyle as the locals. Lack of exercise, bad eating habits… it affects everyone.’ So we’d all do well to take notice of what the DHA is trying to tell us.

For Al Shaar, the difference this campaign could make to the future of the UAE is nothing short of crucial. While WHO says almost 20 per cent of the population already has diabetes, DHA reckons a further 20 per cent is at risk of developing it. How does Al Shaar envisage the UAE would fare without the help of this campaign? ‘It would be scary,’ she says frankly. ‘But I wouldn’t want to predict something that’s not going to happen, because thankfully we do have this campaign. The government is aware of it, the DHA is aware of it, and we are tackling the problem.’ So this campaign is capable of changing the future of the UAE? ‘I’m sure it will make a big difference, and I’m very optimistic about it,’ she responds. ‘The more people who are aware, the fewer people will have it. So we’re hoping for the best.’

Rita Habash, who heads up the medical division at 3M (a major sponsor of the campaign), says that next year heralds the most important phase of the initiative. In 2010, the campaign will go into schools and educate children about combating diabetes, meaning the next generation will grow up well-informed and, hopefully, healthier as a result (Currently, 17 per cent of UAE nationals aged between six and 16 are obese). As well as teaching kids the need-to-knows, the campaign will introduce better food and drink options in schools in a bid to improve bad diets, with fruit, juices and milk more widely available. The potential impact of this is not insignificant. ‘There’ll be better life expectancy and [better quality of life] for the ageing population,’ Habash explains. ‘We’ll be ageing in a healthier form, versus being in your 50s and 60s and having to treat this and that every day.’ So battling diabetes won’t just give the UAE a better future, but a longer one, too.
To be tested for diabetes, contact your local GP. The Dubai Health Authority plans to launch an information hotline in November – we’ll keep you posted.

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