ABU DHABI // The death toll on the roads has pushed the UAE to the bottom of a life-expectancy league table of comparable nations.
Compared with 14 other geographically or economically similar countries, including the United States, Qatar and Kuwait, the UAE had the highest death rate at 615 per 100,000 people in 2010 and the lowest life expectancy at 76.3 years.
The main reason is death on the roads, said Dr Ali Mokdad, professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in the US, which carried out the study.
"You have many car accidents among the younger population, so sadly youngsters die as a result and you have more life lost," he said. "You also have infants and children who die in car accidents and they lose a lot of years."
People who died in car crashes lost, on average, 51 years of their life. The study marks years of life lost against the highest life expectancy at the time, which was 86 for women in Japan. This puts the average age of death from road injury in the UAE at 35.
There were 1,838 deaths from road injuries in 2010, accounting for 14 per cent of all deaths. Three-quarters of those deaths were caused by road crashes, and more than 10 per cent were pedestrians hit by vehicles.
"We have problems from an engineering point of view in terms of developing pedestrian-friendly roads with crosswalks, foot bridges," said Dr Abdulilah Zineddin, a road safety expert in Abu Dhabi. "And we have a lack of public awareness on how to use these crossings. A majority of these deaths are labourers and we need more efforts on educating them."
Speeding is the second main cause of road crashes.
"We've seen how decreasing the maximum limit on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai road has reduced crashes," he said. "So we know the impact of speeding on safety. If we focus on these top two factors, we can definitely make a major difference."
Unified efforts through the establishment of a national highway safety committee and a national highway safety strategy are needed to help improve road conditions in the UAE, Dr Zineddin said.
"This is crucial if you want to send a consistent message and the UAE does not have that," he said. "The committee would be responsible for collecting data, budgeting among the emirates … and developing a coordinated safety strategy."
The study also identified the top health burdens in the country by combining both the number of years lived with a disability and the number of years lost because of premature death among the population in 2010. This is expressed as disability-adjusted life years.
The greatest burden, according to the results, is major depressive disorder - a malady that exists in both developing and high-income countries, Dr Mokdad said.
"Depression is becoming a major cause for disability as societies are changing from family support networks to more western culture and habits," he said. "For example, families used to be able to support each other, but now the busy lifestyle makes it harder. Therefore people tend to deal with their problems with less support."
Experts in the UAE agree.
"When people leave their country of origin, they also leave their support systems, such as family and social networks that at times of crises would normally act as buffers," said Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia in Dubai.
The UAE's transient culture makes it even more challenging.
"People form friendships but those are also cyclical," Dr Afridi said. "Everything is rapidly changing, so the things that ground you both externally and internally don't exist."
Ischemic heart disease and lower back pain came in as the third and fourth major burdens respectively, which experts partially attributed to lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity. Addiction to and abuse of medication was fifth, accounting for the largest increase in disability-adjusted life years since the last study in 1990.
"In our part of the world if you go to a doctor who doesn't give you medication it means he's not a good doctor; you expect the medication," Dr Mokdad said. "This mentality requires patient education, that sometimes medication is not the solution. It's your lifestyle, physical activity, you have to control some of these conditions."
The leading disease burdens in the UAE are the reflection of an ageing population, the academic said.
"The Gulf countries have done a tremendous job of controlling infectious disease … but then people are living longer and with that comes disabilities associated with chronic diseases, such as mental health and drug use disorders."