x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Children with developmental disorders miss out on care, UAE experts warn

Funding key to effective treatment of developmentally disabled children.

Children with developmental disorders are missing out on essential care because it is not covered by insurance, experts warn.

With a limited number of community centres specialising in early intervention, most expatriates resort to private health care but high costs take a toll on families.

Jason Garner, clinical director at the Child Early Intervention Medical Centre, said the lack of insurance was the main problem.

"What we do is try to provide documentation stating what the child needs and why we feel it's necessary," Mr Garner said.

He said most children at the centre were not receiving the recommended treatment due to the cost. Government funding would probably be limited as the population is transient.

The average annual cost of a private early intervention programme is between Dh100,000 and Dh400,000.

Mr Garner's centre charges between Dh145 and Dh225 an hour for applied-behaviour analysis, an internationally recognised method of behaviour modification, particularly for children with autism.

On average, autistic children have 40 hours of analysis a week, on top of speech and occupational therapy.

Daman, the national insurer, covers speech and occupational therapy "upon request for customised group plans". Physiotherapy is covered in all of its plans.

Applied-behaviour analysis is covered if a psychiatrist provides it and psychiatry is included in the policy.

"Developmental disorders mostly require educational intervention, which is by definition outside the scope of medical insurance," said Dr Sven Rohte, chief commercial officer at Daman.

Autism Speaks, a US science and advocacy group, says the cost of providing care for the intellectually disabled is US$2.3 million (Dh8.4m) over their lifetime. Costs for care at private centres in the US are comparable to costs in the UAE.

Thirty-two US states, representing about 75 per cent of the population, have laws requiring most private health plans to include cover for treatments related to autism.

Local experts hope insurance companies in the UAE will follow.

"One of the important solutions is for insurance companies to come forward and help these kids," said Dr Bushra Al Mulla, director of the Dubai Early Childhood Development Centre.

"Yes, these are long-term conditions that cannot be cured but children can get better and improve. You would find that many of these services are insured abroad."

Figures from the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (Haad) show there are 3,784 children in the emirate with developmental disorders, which include autism, Down and Fragile X syndromes and phenylketonuria.

The problem is not limited to expatriates. While a number of specialised centres offer free early intervention to Emiratis, many of them are already struggling to meet demand.

The Abu Dhabi Autism Centre treats 42 children but there are plans for a larger centre to open in 2014.

The Community Development Authority's Dubai Early Childhood Development Centre, which accepts nationals in Dubai aged 6 and under, serves 58 children and has a waiting list of more than 100.

Other charitable centres offering similar services at more affordable prices are also crowded.

Sharjah Humanitarian City's Early Intervention Centre, which accepts children of all nationalities to the age of 5, has 250 children and 170 on its waiting list.

The centre charges Dh5,000 a year for a full programme, although each child costs it Dh35,000.

Plans are under way for a larger centre but the details have yet to be ironed out, said Mohammed Fawzi, the centre's director.

"Regardless of what the plans are, there will always be the issue of staffing and funding," Mr Fawzi said. "The success of a centre like ours fully relies on community and governmental support."

mismail@thenational.ae