x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Schools teach the perils of too much play in the sun

Hats and long sleeves are recommended to reduce risks of skin cancer and damaged sight from exposure to high UV levels.

The dangers from too much exposure to ultraviolet rays are taught as part of the health education programme.
The dangers from too much exposure to ultraviolet rays are taught as part of the health education programme.

ABU DHABI // Schools are warning pupils of the dangers of ultraviolet radiation in sunlight and the damage too much exposure can cause amid concerns that many people in the UAE do too little to protect themselves.

The British School - Al Khubairat in the capital is stepping up its campaign to teach children about different skin types and to limit the amount of time they spend in the sun during playtime. Excessive exposure to ultraviolet light can cause sunburn, eye damage, skin ageing and skin cancer. Most ultraviolet light is screened out by the atmosphere's ozone layer, but the amount penetrating as far as the Earth's surface varies. It can be measured on an international standard known as the UV index. On that scale, any reading over 11 poses "an extreme risk of harm", according to the World Health Organisation. Parents were told that last week levels above 11 were recorded in the UAE.

At 11, the recommended "safe" time for a person to spend in the sun is eight minutes. The WHO advises taking precautions that include a high-factor sunscreen, wearing long sleeves, trousers and a hat and avoiding the sun altogether for two to three hours after midday. Skin cancer is the 10th most common cancer in the Emirates, according to the National Cancer Registry. Paul Coackley, the principal of the British School - Al Khubairat, said lessons on the dangers of the sun were a regular part of the school's health education programme.

"We have an ongoing programme of sun safety," he said. One possibility being considered was a display of pictures to show different skin types. "It's part of a whole array of things we can do to encourage people to think about it." Mr Coackley said the school also had plenty of shaded areas so children would not have to stay out in the sun. Many weather forecasts include temperature and humidity, but rarely mention UV readings.

George Odhiamo, an assistant professor of geography at UAE University, said the UV levels could change from day to day. "It can be the same temperature but the UV levels can be different," he said. "It would be very useful for people to know the level so they can protect themselves." A spokesman for the Dubai Meteorological Office at the airport said it did not monitor ultraviolet rays because "when it is hot, people know to take care".

Mohammed al Abri, of the National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology, said the centre collected a monthly report but did not distribute information on the level of UV rays on a daily basis. "This is something we could look into in the future," he said. Dr Sabina Aidarous, a family physician in Dubai, said the earlier children learnt about the importance of protecting themselves in the sun, the better.

"Putting more emphasis on the UV index would be an excellent idea," she said. "Children in nurseries and schools are outside at the time when the sun is at its worst. "It's great that they can get an education early on so that when they are teenagers and adults they understand the importance of protecting themselves." Dr Aidarous said she often advised parents on how properly to care for their children in the sun to avoid future problems such as skin cancer.

She also said that many other countries, including Britain, included UV levels in their weather forecasts and often showed which sun protection factor (SPF) was appropriate. Other schools in the Emirates also said they ensured youngsters were aware of the dangers of spending too much time in the sun. At Kings' Dubai, there is a "no hat, no play" policy, under which children without hats are not allowed outside at break times.

"If the child doesn't have their hat, they're not allowed out whatever the weather," said Debbie Watson, the head teacher. "It is a year-round policy, so they quickly get into the routine." Children were also expected to have had sunscreen applied before they came to school and the school nurse kept a supply. There were also indoor places for the children during break times, Mrs Watson said, so they did not have to go outside.

She added it was "vital" that people understood the dangers sun exposure could bring. "It forms a big part of our education programme for both parents and children. We give updates to parents to make them aware of the dangers through our newsletter and parents' meetings." At Dubai English Speaking College, Peter Daly, the head, said the subject was "a compulsory part of the curriculum" and people were now "far more conscious" of the dangers than in previous decades.

All physical education lessons were indoors and the school's swimming pool was covered. "The emphasis is to educate them about what the dangers are." Parents and children from Australia, where awareness is high because of the frequency of skin cancer, were particularly careful, he added. "They are really conscious of it and we could learn a lot from them."

munderwood@thenational.ae dbardsley@thenational.ae