x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Massive health policy overhaul to tackle childhood obesity

Senior officials admit children's health 'not well served'

Officials want children to eat less junk food.
Officials want children to eat less junk food.

A massive overhaul of children's health is being planned in an attempt to reverse the growing trends of childhood obesity and diabetes. Senior officials from the capital's health and education authorities admitted that children's health was "not well served". They said attempts to improve the situation had failed, in part because they were too ambitious, rather than setting specific, achievable goals.

The new School Health Strategy will aim to improve nutrition, encourage exercise and stop children taking up smoking. It will also include mandatory screening and vaccination for common diseases, as well as mental and dental health. More than 100 delegates met yesterday to thrash out the details of the programme. The conference, hosted by Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD), was the first step to creating a comprehensive strategy, targeting some of the most concerning areas. Dr Salim Adib, the head of public health at HAAD, said: "We can't ignore that the health of our children is not well served.

"If the situation goes on like this it will be even worse when they are adults. The increased prosperity has brought with it all the secondary effects. We obviously don't want to roll back prosperity but we want to help children make the right choices, particularly early on." Targets include building more school sports facilities and improving existing ones. Officials will also aim to improve the food in school canteens and cafeterias, with calorie allowances for each age group.

The authority plans to introduce individual care plans for children with chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes, and ensure that every school nurse is trained in life support and emergencies. HAAD said it would enforce strict rules governing foods in schools, and physical education, working with the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) and the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, . Dr Mugheer al Khaili, ADEC's director general, said: "It is a priority for us." He said the authority was working to introduce licensed nurses into the emirate's 305 public schools. Several pilot programmes were under way and a "new school model" was being prepared for a phased introduction next year, he said.

Although food guidelines for canteens were introduced by the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority last year, officials admitted that they were too "radical" to be successful. "We try, we fail and we learn," Dr Adib said. "The guidelines were too extensive, they were inapplicable." Canteens were barred from serving food such as felafel, hamburgers and sodas. Instead, they were instructed to offer foods such as fresh fruit, salads, and fish. However, the guidelines did not include calorie counts or sample menus.

Elizabeth Bromfield, the headmistress at Al Shohub Private School for girls, said although vendors were not allowed near the school, pupils found other sources. "We spend a lot of time talking to students about healthy eating and we try to adhere to all the regulations but there is a great love of junk food type of things, because they're just kids," she said. Pupils still bring in banned fizzy drinks and sweets.

The school would contact parents if younger children had unhealthy lunch boxes, she said, but it was much harder to supervise the older children. As part of the new strategy, all schoolchildren will be screened for common ailments to give officials a better picture of problem areas. Doctors and school nurses will test hearing, sight, oral health, iron levels and spinal curvature. Dr Jennifer Moore, the head of family and school health at HAAD, said: "Schools are a fundamentally important part of a child's life but there are many other factors. This strategy needs to look at the family, the home life and the surrounding community."

Dr Moore said the Global School Health Survey 2005 found just over 12 per cent of adolescents were overweight, and another 25 per cent were at risk of becoming overweight. Part of the problem is that not all schools in Abu Dhabi have adequate physical education facilities. Some, particularly older schools, have a small shaded concrete playground, and no indoor gym, making sport difficult during the summer.

Newer schools, such as the Al Afaq Model School, tend to have better facilities. It has a large indoor gym and outdoor spaces with play equipment. ADEC plans to build 100 new "green" public schools in the next decade that will have extensive facilities for sport. Schools lacking gymnasiums and canteens will be the first to be replaced. Much of yesterdays discussion centred on the role of parents. Dr Adib said improving a child's health could have an impact on the rest of the family.

"If we get the children interested, they might get the family interested, but it is more important to concentrate on the children," Dr Adib said. "They are the next generation." Lamya Mustafa, a mother of three boys at Al Mutabanbi School for Boys, said enforcing healthy rules was difficult because "boys will be boys". "Even if kids are told what is healthy and what is not, they will still like to snack on fun foods," she said, adding that authorities must create more play areas around the city.

"If it was not for school, there would be nowhere else for the boys to play soccer or basketball. What about during weekends and afternoons and the summer, where can they go then? That is something that should be addressed." @Email:munderwood@thenational.ae klewis@thenational.ae