ABU DHABI // The UAE has set up a task force to tackle the growing problems relating to diet and nutrition after a World Health Organisation report said the region needed to take urgent action in key areas such as obesity and diabetes.
A draft plan of action for the WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (Emro) released this week said the consequences of nutritional disorders in the region were "too grave to be ignored". In response, the Ministry of Health and other government agencies have formed a National Nutrition Committee to draft a strategy for reducing obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease.
It will focus on areas such as better education, improving food labelling for nutritional content, school programmes, vitamin deficiencies and breast feeding. Dr Zeinab Taha, a nutrition consultant at the ministry's maternal and child health department, said a number of educational programmes would be held across the emirates. They "will be conducted in health centres, schools and women's associations as part of the strategy. Nutrition guides for families, adolescent girls, kids and pregnant women will be supplied across the country", she said.
The Emro Diet Nutrition Strategy and Plan of Action for 2010 said all countries in the region including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Iraq and Sudan need to establish and implement programmes according to their national situation and resources. "Diet-related chronic diseases exert a heavy cost and are contributing to morbidity and mortality rates in the region," said the report. "In addition to the problem of under-nutrition, the burden of overweight [people], obesity and diet-related chronic diseases is increasing. This nutrition transition is alarming as it negatively impacts on health systems in the region."
Dr Ayesha al Dhaheri, a member of the National Nutrition Committee, has been involved in a number of meetings between UAE officials and WHO representatives. "Each aspect of the WHO strategy is important but each country has priorities," she said. "Our priority is the problem of overweight and obesity across all the population, especially children. This is the main reason for other non-communicable diseases, which are also a priority."
According to Dr Salah al Badawi, the director of the National Project for Control of Diabetes at the Ministry of Health, "An action plan and a national monitoring system in this regard will be developed at the beginning of the coming year." No further details of the plan or system are available yet. The WHO report puts the UAE in the category of "countries in advanced nutrition stage" with high levels of overweightness and obesity, and moderate levels of under-nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies.
It also criticises all countries for not collecting enough data or having sufficient government policies and monitoring systems. Figures for child malnutrition, for example, that show 14 per cent of UAE children are severely underweight and 17 per cent suffer from "stunting", are from 1995.The statistics are the oldest of more than 20 sets of figures for countries in the region. Tables charting obesity, poor fruit and vegetable intake, and lifestyle diseases do not include the UAE. Information produced in 2008 by the department of nutrition and health at UAE University report that 50 per cent of married Emiratis - men and women - are obese and an average of 24 per cent of children aged between eight and 12 are overweight.
Figures on dietary habits confirm the concerns in the WHO report, with 60 per cent of children aged between five and 14 years old eating chips and chocolate every day, while only 28 per cent consume vegetables and 32 per cent eat fruit each day. Twenty-five per cent of the Emirati population are diabetic and a quarter suffer from hypertension. Dr al Dhaheri, who is also assistant dean for student affairs at the College of Food and Agriculture at UAE University in Al Ain, said the most important issue was awareness among health professionals and the public. "No one is really telling the people exactly what to do. Some foods are labelled well but people don't know how to read them or which bits are important."
A programme to highlight the risk of Type 2 diabetes in children and their parents was launched on Thursday in Sharjah with a workshop for 120 nurses and teachers from 10. Conducted by health officials and the Ministry of Education, the first sessions will address schools in Sharjah, Dubai, Ajman and Umm al Qaiwain. Every school in the UAE will be covered over the next three years. "We need to be able to instill the dangers of diabetes and raise awareness of the disease across the entire country," said Dr Mahmoud Fikri, the chief executive for health policies affairs and chairman of the National Diabetes Board for the Ministry of Health. "This is a remarkable achievement and one that we believe will save thousands of lives."
Pupils were given questionnaires to complete about their eating and exercise habits and a pedometer to help measure their daily activity. Screenings will be undertaken to assess the percentage of children with Type 2 diabetes and tailor plans for a healthier lifestyle. "Supplying our youth with adequate information and advice can make a real difference in our aim to change the current unhealthy lifestyle they are leading," said Dr Ossama Alalla, a physical activity specialist in the Ministry of Education's school activity department.
Dr al Dhaheri insisted the national strategy would make a real difference because every agency involved would be accountable to the nutrition committee. The committee includes members of the ministries of health, education, agriculture and economy, as well as other bodies such as the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi and the Dubai Health Authority. "This is the first time many federal agencies and local agencies have come together to make one document which everyone must follow. Everyone has a role and goals they must meet. They will have to inform the committee of their progress. This will ensure things are done.
"The plan will only work if everyone is involved; one hand cannot clap without the other." firstname.lastname@example.org