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Biggest killers: unhealthy lifestyles, dangerous roads

Figures released by Health Authority paint a picture of a country on which modern life is taking its toll, with the effects of poor diet, lack of exercise and dangerous roads being the biggest killers.

Abu Dhabi // The figures released by the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi paint a picture of a country on which modern life is taking its toll, with the effects of poor diet, lack of exercise and dangerous roads being the biggest killers. Obesity rose among Emirati men, from one in four (25.6 per cent) in 2008 to one in three (33 per cent) last year. Among women it fell slightly, from 39.9 per cent to 38 per cent.

Heart disease accounted for a quarter of all deaths in the emirate last year, followed by injuries at 22 per cent and cancer at 14 per cent. Deaths from diabetes rose by 44 per cent, from 7.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2008 to 10.8 in 2009. Dr Wael al Mahmeed, the head of the Emirates Cardiac Society and a senior cardiologist in Abu Dhabi, said he was not surprised heart disease was the biggest killer.

"The message needs to be everywhere; in schools, in mosques, in media; it is not just the responsibility of doctors," he said. The country should adopt a five- to 10-year nationwide plan, rather than short-term, emirate-level plans, he added. He also called on authorities from HAAD to the Department of Islamic Affairs to work together to combat the problems caused by the country's fatty diets and sedentary lifestyles.

Early figures from the Thiqa screening programme highlight dangerously high levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease among UAE nationals. Obesity affects two in three Emirati women aged between 50 and 59, while more than half in that group are diabetic and a third suffer from high blood pressure. Of local men the same age, 55 per cent are diabetic and more than a third are obese. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UAE has the world's 11th fattest population. Only Egypt, the US, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Nauru, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Nicaragua rank higher. The UAE also has the second highest rate of diabetes after Nauru, according to WHO. These diseases are also quite prevalent amongst the expatriate population.

More expatriate women than men are obese - in the 30-39 age group, for example, almost a third of women are obese, compared to fewer than one in five men. While HAAD puts combatting these diseases at the top of its list of public health priorities, it notes that doing so will be difficult. For example, efforts to reduce smoking - seen last week with the release of details of the impending ban on smoking in public places - have some way to go. Among 20- to 29-year-old men, more than a quarter of Emiratis and a third of expatriates smoke.

"Everybody needs to be dedicated," said Dr al Mahmeed. "If the agencies are not prepared to budget for five or 10 years, it will not improve." Injuries were the second biggest killer in the country, with road accidents alone accounting for 430 deaths - 14 per cent of the total - compared with 422 in 2008. They were also the biggest killer of young men. "Abu Dhabi has one of the highest rates of injuries resulting from road traffic accidents," the report stated.

Speeding, lack of seat belt use and dangerous driving are seen as the main causes. Only 11 per cent of Emiratis and fewer than half of expatriates wear seat belts, according to data from UAE University. The worst offenders are men between 25 and 29. The number of injury-related deaths remained similar to previous years: 108 construction workers were killed at work, 32 more than in 2008. Thirteen people, including four Emiratis, drowned, and 51 - all expatriates - committed suicide.

In 2008, the same number drowned and 66 committed suicide. The death rate from cancer is also rising, from 18.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 2008 to 20.8 per 100,000 last year. It was the third leading cause of death, accounting for 14 per cent. Breast cancer remains the dominant form of the disease. Last summer HAAD introduced mandatory mammograms for women aged between 40 and 69 as part of the Thiqa registration process. Some 44 per cent of breast cancer cases are fatal, according to HAAD.

While the number of births has slowly increased during the last 10 years, the fertility rate has fallen. The country's overall rate declined from 4.4 children per woman in 1990 to 2.3 in 2007. HAAD put this down to "urbanisation, delayed marriage, changing attitudes about family size, and increased education and work opportunities for women". Infant mortality has also declined, bringing the country in line with other developed countries and significantly lower than the rest of the GCC.

The rate of five deaths per 1,000 live births in Abu Dhabi is just a fifth of the Saudi Arabian rate of 25. The rates for Oman, Kuwait and Qatar are also more than double that of Abu Dhabi, with 12, 11 and 10, respectively. Bahrain matched Qatar, with 10 infant deaths per 1,000 births. @Email:munderwood@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Hala Khalaf

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