ABU DHABI // If gestational diabetes - high levels of blood sugar that occur during pregnancy - can be prevented, the numbers of people who are struck with Type 2 diabetes later in life can be drastically brought down, says Lise Kingo, the executive vice president of the Danish diabetes pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.
"Today we know that our adult health is formed during the first nine months in the womb, and during the first two years of our life," Ms Kingo said.
Women have to protect their own and their infant's health in order to prevent chronic diseases.
Dr Bashir Salih, the chief of service and gestational diabetes specialist at Corniche Hospital in the capital, said that 16 per cent of pregnant women at the hospital had some type of diabetes, normally gestational or Type 2. Worldwide, 10 per cent of pregnant women are expected to develop gestational diabetes.
"We think 16 per cent in the UAE is not reflecting the exact number, and it may be higher because we are not screening all women; we should screen women prior to pregnancy and then as early as possible in pregnancy, because gestational diabetes is much higher in this part of the world," Dr Salih said.
This is a reflection of the high overall prevalence of diabetes in the UAE; it affects one out of five people in the country, the second-highest rate worldwide after the Pacific island of Nauru.
Additionally, more than 13 million women in the Middle East and North Africa region - eight per cent of the region's total female population - are currently living with diabetes.
Dr Akiko Maeda, the manager for the health, nutrition and population sector human development department at the World Bank, said the high prevalence of the disease also related to obesity.
"Obesity, particularly among women, is very high in this region," she said. "We need a sense of urgency about diabetes, particularly when it strikes pregnant women, because that just means that both the woman and her child will get diabetes again later in life."
If a woman with gestational diabetes is not treated with insulin to combat the high sugar in her blood, the baby will be exposed to a high glucose diet, said Ms Kingo.
"The result? Big babies that are very fat, which is already dangerous for the woman giving birth to this baby, but which also increases the chance of the woman and child getting diabetes later in life by 50 per cent," she said.
Alternatively, if a pregnant woman is malnourished and gives birth to a baby with a low birth weight, the child is genetically coded to live with less nutrition.
"Its chances of contracting diabetes later in life are higher because all it requires is putting on a little bit of weight for risk factors to set in," Ms Kingo said.
"Maybe, if we can target pregnant women and raise awareness on maternal health, it is the answer to all our problems."
Dr Sameera al Tuwaijri, a policy adviser on reproductive health for the World Bank, said that despite the importance of gestational diabetes, there seemed to be no mechanism for data analysis and collection in the region.
"This is the most common medical disorder found in pregnancy, and yet we still have a problem diagnosing it, and we still have no system that ensures universal screening of women," she said.
"We could address all types of chronic diseases just by addressing the health of pregnant woman, before and during her pregnancy."
Professor Jean Claude Mbanya, the president of the International Diabetes Federation, said that if something were not done soon, healthy people might become a minority.
"The first 1,000 days of life, which include the nine months in the womb, are a blueprint for our health for the rest of our lives," he said. "It is obvious where our focus should be."