Only early intervention and improved lifestyle choices can prevent the toll of cardiovascular disease and diabetes among Emiratis.
Heart attack and stroke time bomb
ABU DHABI // Emiratis are expected to suffer about 4,500 heart attacks and strokes in the next decade in the emirate as a result of inadequate treatment or poor lifestyle choices, health officials warned yesterday.
The results were from the first large-scale study of 180,000 adult Emiratis in Abu Dhabi - slightly less than half the total.
The year-long study was carried out by the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad) Weqaya programme, which aims to screen all adult Emiratis in the emirate for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
The figures showed that nearly a third of Emiratis have a cardiovascular disease risk factor, such as smoking or high cholesterol, and predicts that among them they will suffer 4,500 incidences of heart attack or strokes in the next 10 years.
And up to 80 per cent of these attacks are preventable, with screening and early intervention.
"It is concerning how much of this is on our hands," said Dr Oliver Harrison, the director of public health and policy at Haad. "If we don't take action, we could be putting the population at risk."
The study also found that one in four Emiratis is pre-diabetic, and one in five is diabetic, which often leads to complications including heart, kidney and eye problems.
The study, done in collaboration with Lilly pharmaceuticals, also looked at about 145,000 Emirati and expatriate diabetics in Abu Dhabi. Nearly half had experienced complications as a result of their disease.
The average cost of treating a diabetic without complications in Abu Dhabi is Dh15,400 a year. But if they have just one complication, this figure increases more than three-fold to Dh53,500. Treating patients with severe macrovascular complications - those affecting larger blood vessels such as those in the heart or brain - costs as much as Dh100,725 a year.
Steven Babineaux, a senior research scientist at Lilly, said that while the cost of treatment in the UAE is nearly double that in the US, it is hard to compare because "they are two very different health systems".
"What these numbers tell us is that if we identify the patients earlier and provide them with clear treatment guidelines, we can prevent many of the health, financial and social implications of this disease," he said.
The overall annual spending on treating Emiratis with diabetes in Abu Dhabi is Dh1 billion, and this is expected to increase to Dh4bn a year in the next two decades. Dr Harrison said this was "a significant figure considering such a small number of people".
While much emphasis has been placed on awareness, he said the effect had been "much smaller than the government would like it to be".
"Awareness is not sufficient to change people's behaviour," he said. "People often perform their daily routines on autopilot. This includes buying groceries and having their meals. You can't expect them to change this behaviour with an article in the newspaper."
However, strategies that affect consumer decisions, such as pricing, easy access to healthy food, and food labelling, can help change these deep-rooted behaviours.
The health authority is working with others, including food and tobacco regulators, on a five-year plan to reduce smoking and the intake of food containing saturated fats. However, this requires intervention on a community scale, Dr Harrison said. "We need the Government at the highest levels to work towards this goal. We need them to encourage other sectors, including those in food, fitness, education and tobacco, to take action," he said. "We cannot do this single-handedly."