x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Gulf faces up to rising cost of diabetes epidemic

The region is tackling health issues such as diabetes head-on. The amount of investment in the whole sector is increasing but will need to rise even further.

Dr Maha Taysir Barakat was there when the doors opened at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi nearly four years ago.

"At first, we would see about five patients a day, then it was 10 a day, and it built to 200 patients a day," recalls Dr Barakat, the consultant endocrinologist and director of medical and research at the hospital. "Now it's exceeding 300 a day." Since that day in August 2006 more than 20,000 patients have visited the hospital, particularly for diabetes, which is prevalent in the UAE. Managing diabetes is a large focus for healthcare providers and spending by governments in the region.

There are two main types of the disease: Type 1 is most commonly evident from early childhood and sufferers are dependent on insulin; while Type 2, also known as adult-onset diabetes, has been linked to obesity and other lifestyle factors. In Abu Dhabi, nearly a third of Emiratis are overweight and one in four shows evidence of having the disease, government health statistics show. Nationally, the figure is about 20 per cent.

About 25 per cent of Emirati men and almost 40 per cent of women in the country are classified as obese, which puts a further strain on medical facilities. Treating those patients could cost the nation more than Dh440 million (US$119.7m) a year, according to research from UAE University. One of those patients, an Emirati woman in her mid-40s, has been treated for the disease for the past five years. Each day she swallows two pills to regulate her insulin levels and tries to keep to a strict diet free of carbohydrates and sweets.

"In Arabic, we have this saying that 'diabetes is one of the diseases you have to become friends with, because it affects every aspect of your life'," says the woman, who did not want to disclose her name because she felt there was still a stigma to the disease. But the growing number of patients has helped provide revenue for companies such as Bayer HealthCare. The German conglomerate has sold a variety of medical and pharmaceutical products in the region in the past 40 years, but has recently stepped up its operations in the UAE with products for diabetes patients.

Bayer first introduced its Contour blood glucose monitoring system three years ago and expects it to be a brisk seller in the years ahead. "It takes the human error out [of monitoring blood insulin levels]," says Abdulaziz Hussein, the company's regional business manager, who is based in Jeddah. Bayer expects sales and revenues to increase by as much as 13 per cent annually in the next few years. Contour is sold in pharmacies for between Dh300 and Dh350.

Through economic boom and bust health care has remained on an upward trajectory, posting year after year of growth as healthcare providers throughout the world cope with the demands of an ageing population. In the GCC, demand for care largely comes from populations that suffer higher rates of obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular illnesses. Various estimates have the value of the GCC's healthcare sector at between $15 billion and $18bn a year, a total that should increase five-fold by 2025.

The growth in demand is fuelled by both the governments in the Gulf and the citizens they serve, says Ameera Youssef, the business director at Acorn Research Group in Dubai. "Governments are getting smarter," Ms Youssef says. "Patients are more aware of their rights; they don't want to accept the standards of health care of the past." To meet those demands, the UAE Ministry of Finance has said 6.4 per cent of its total budget of Dh43.6bn this year will go to health care.

Enigma Diagnostics, a spin-off from research developed at the UK ministry of defence, was one of the vendors at the recent InnovHealth 2010 conference in Abu Dhabi hoping to attract sales from this growing pool of customers. Enigma makes desktop-sized machines that can analyse blood, urine and other body chemicals, essentially creating portable laboratories. The Gulf is its first foray outside of Britain and the company is looking to the vast rural parts of the region where state-of-the-art health care is difficult to provide.

John McKinley, the chairman and chief executive of Enigma, says: "The Gulf is where we want to be." Abu Dhabi is investing heavily in its healthcare infrastructure as its health authority plans to add 2,000 hospital beds to the existing 3,642 in the next 10 years. Mubadala Healthcare, a division of Mubadala Development, which is a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, has partnerships with international medical organisations.

The link-up involves Mubadala providing the capital while the medical groups offer technology, expertise and staff. The investment company opened the Imperial College London centre and it is building the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, which is due to open in 2012. But even with that dedicated funding, health budgets could still be stretched to the limit to match demand from a population that is increasing each year. Acorn Research predicts that projected spending in the GCC by 2025 will top $57.3bn.

But analysts warn even that might not be enough. Alpen Capital, a Dubai investment bank, cautions that the region needs to add more than 27,000 beds to meet international standards. But Dr Baraket says the region's growing healthcare needs are not going to be met merely through investment in infrastructure and having patients visit doctors in hospitals. "There is no point in a patient seeing a doctor who just gives tablets," she says.

"They need to understand what they should and shouldn't do, what they should and shouldn't eat, especially since they only see the doctor, say, three or four times a year. This is 365 days a year." @Email:ashah@thenational.ae