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Health statistics do not tell whole story

While the UAE population is basically healthy, the figures indicate a need for individuals to look after themselves.

The wealth of data made public yesterday by the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi includes some eye-opening statistics about births and deaths, numbers with implications for both government policy and the ordinary family.

In general, the figures in HAAD's report Health Statistics 2011 tell of a healthy population - the UAE's life expectancy of 77 for men and 79 for women suggests that.

There are certainly some challenges. One headline from the report is that diseases of the circulatory system are now responsible for 37.5 per cent of deaths in Abu Dhabi, up from 26.5 per cent in 2010. Heart disease killed more Abu Dhabi residents in 2011 than did cancer and "external causes" - mainly accidents - taken together.

Meanwhile, on-the-job fatalities and road-traffic deaths both declined in number from 2010, the second consecutive year of such improvement. These are welcome developments, and ones quite possibly tied to improved workplace safety standards, greater use of speed cameras, and other awareness and prevention measures.

But it will take time before we know if these improvements are sustained and cumulative, or merely fluctuations. Year-on-year changes can certainly grab public attention, but statisticians know that the real significance in any annual data series lies in longer-term progressions.

While the increase in circulatory-system deaths between 2010 and 2011 was dramatic, it is also part of a slower upwards trend that has continued since 2006. It is no surprise that this development roughly matches growing obesity and an increasing number of diabetics, since both conditions increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

These numbers suggest that there is more to be done in educating people about the health risks associated with their lifestyle choices and the necessity to be screened and, if necessary, treated for diabetes and other dangerous conditions.

Statistics, although revealing about a whole society, tend to obscure the individual patient and, if we aren't careful, the individual's innate primary responsibility for his or her own health. Since 2006, Abu Dhabi has linked health insurance to residency, meaning that everyone has access to modern health care. But the best system in the world will not be good enough for people who consistently make unhealthy choices.

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