DUBAI // Health experts warn they are seeing an increase in the number of schoolchildren contracting diabetes this year as sedentary lifestyles take their toll on a nation with the second-highest rate of the disease in the world.
Health officials have embarked on a campaign of education sessions in public schools nationwide to flag the dangers to students, teachers and parents.
While the number of children suffering from diabetes in the Emirates is unknown, officials attribute the increase in cases to poor diet and lack of exercise, two harbingers for the disease. If not controlled, diabetes can lead to further complications including impaired vision, numbness of the extremities, kidney failure and heart disease.
"We are looking at a three-pronged approach to tackle the issue at a school level," said Dr Mahmoud Fikri, the Ministry of Health's executive director for health policies and the chairman of the Higher National Committee for Diabetes.
"We have started training teachers and nurses about the disease, and they will work with parents to address the problem," he said. "Then we need to work on how to treat students with diabetes, educate them about its link with obesity and promote more physical activity in schools."
According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health between October and December last year, more than half the children attending public schools are unhealthy. Of 26,781 students surveyed in government schools in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, 4.4 per cent were found to be morbidly obese, 16.1 per cent were obese and 32.3 per cent were overweight.
A small number also suffered from malnutrition. According to Ministry of Health records, there are 502 diabetic students in Dubai and Northern Emirates schools. About 9.2 per cent of these had Type 2, also referred to as adult onset, diabetes.
"Due to malnutrition, low mobility and overweight conditions, chronic diseases that usually appear at an older age now appear in kids," said Dr Mariam al Matroushi, the supervisor of the school health programme at the Ministry of Health.
Dr Magda Mohammed, a paediatric specialist with the ministry who is responsible for check-ups in Dubai public schools, said general clinical examinations - which involve weight and height records plus blood and urine tests for all students in Grades 1, 5 and 9 - revealed many students had diabetes or were at risk of developing it.
"Being obese can make a child insulin-resistant and, later on, could lead to diabetes if immediate action is not taken," said Dr Mohammed, who tests students in 92 public schools in Dubai.
Students diagnosed with the disease during school clinical tests are referred to a hospital. On the recommendation of their doctor, a management plan is implemented for the student, and school doctors and nurses are informed about the treatment to be followed.
"The nurse will carry out regular check-ups for the diabetic student and help them control it," Dr Mohammed said.
A three-year programme to raise awareness about diabetes was launched last year by the ministry in co-operation with the pharmaceutical company Sanofi Aventis.
This year, officials have organised workshops to teach parents and students with diabetes how to manage, and even beat, the disease.
One component of the session is to inform students about the amount of exercise diabetics should incorporate into their daily schedule, said Dr Osama Alalla, a health specialist from the ministry.
"If a child indulges in any form of exercise - be it walking, jogging or a sport - for 30 minutes, it can keep diabetes in control," said Dr Alalla.
He warned that too much activity could be harmful for a diabetic child: "Sport is good, but too much could cause a drop in the sugar level and that is dangerous. The focus is on how much exercise is required, what type of food they should eat and when to eat."
At the Fatima al Zahra High School in Sharjah, seven teenage girls have diabetes, but all students have been taught how to monitor their blood sugar levels, said Afra Alalla, the physical education co-ordinator.
"We constantly advise students on food they should avoid, like chips and burgers, which are quite popular among youngsters," Ms Alalla said.
"The girls are mature enough to understand that they must lead a healthy lifestyle and do regular check-ups so that they do not face complications in the future."