x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Snapshots of the nation's health

Anticipating future problems will require a much fuller set of numbers, a WHO report has shown, prompting UAE leaders in the field to call for a centralised data clearing house.

Source: World Health Organisation

Experts want to see improved collection of health statistics after a World Health Organisation report exposed significant gaps in data being compiled in the UAE. In the latest edition of World Health Statistics, based on data compiled by the 193 member countries of the WHO, the UAE performs consistently well against most of the WHO's Millennium Development Goals, both when compared with fellow members of the Gulf Co-operation Council and measured against European and US standards.

However, there are limited data available from the country on a range of key risk factors associated with illness and death. There are no statistics, for instance, on low birth weight, "an important predictor of health and survival [that] reflects maternal malnutrition, ill-health and overwork and inadequate health care in pregnancy", or the percentage of infants who are exclusively breast-fed for the first six months of life.

Following publication of the report, a senior researcher at the Dubai School of Government has called for a national centre for epidemiological studies to improve the collection of comprehensive and accurate data. "Lots of statistics here are only estimates," said Dr Fatma Abdulla, formerly chief strategy officer for Dubai Healthcare City and dean of health sciences, communication technology and education at the Higher Colleges of Technology.

"We don't have any epidemiology centres that collect comprehensive data on any types of things. We do need these. "We have different health systems and the whole issue of mandated reporting needs to come about." At the moment, the collection of data is left to the individual health authority in a particular emirate. For example, the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi is responsible for collating statistics only on the health of people in the capital. The Dubai Health Authority and the Ministry of Health work in Dubai and the northern Emirates respectively. This, said Dr Abdulla, had led to a lack of cohesion and accurate figures, and the country needed a central clearing house for information, comparable to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US.

Information of the sort missing from the WHO report was vital to understanding and mapping the health of the UAE population, she said. Dr Hassib Narchi, an associate professor and consultant paediatrician at the UAE University Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, said having robust and comprehensive data was "essential". For example, one of the vital missing data sets was for the number of children born underweight.

"This is a very important indicator for a number of reasons," he said. "If a child is born prematurely, and therefore underweight, there can be a number of complications which should be considered. It would be helpful to know the rates of this to plan for immediate sorts of care in the hospital. "In the long run these figures will count because you can see what the impact is on society, and what kind of services you need to address these."

The WHO has no UAE data for a range of indicators, including the number of children under five who were born below weight; contraceptive prevalence; antenatal care and unmet need for family planning. While the WHO report gives the UAE a clean bill of health in some key areas, such as provision of care, it paints a worrying picture of a country facing a looming public-health crisis caused by the twin threats of smoking and obesity.

Between 2000 and 2007, says the report, more than 25 per cent of men and almost 40 per cent of women aged over 15 in the UAE were obese, a condition associated with a range of serious health problems, ranging from heart disease to diabetes. The UAE is one of only three GCC countries for which this information is available; a similar percentage of the population is seriously overweight in Saudi Arabia, and in both countries a higher proportion of women than of men is affected.

While the UAE and other Muslim countries are spared the medical and social consequences of alcohol abuse - 18 of the 20 countries with the highest consumption are European - there is a high prevalence here of tobacco smoking, "an important predictor of the future burden of tobacco-related diseases", says the WHO. More than a quarter of men smoke - one of the highest proportions in the GCC - and although few women use tobacco (2.6 per cent) the figure is much higher among girls aged between 13 and 15, of whom 13.2 per cent smoke. The proportion of boys who smoke, 25.2 per cent, is roughly equal to the proportion of men.

Nevertheless, the incidence of smoking throughout the GCC is still lower than in Europe, where more than 44 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women smoke. munderwood@thenational.ae jgornall@thenational.ae