x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Teachers and doctors call for obesity screening in schools

Doctors and teachers call for all children to be weighed and measured to help prevent childhood obesity and diabetes.

DUBAI // Doctors and teachers are calling for all children to be weighed and measured to help prevent childhood obesity and diabetes. Last month, a three-month publicity drive, called The Fat Truth, was spearheaded by the Ministry of Health and Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, the wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, but some say it is not enough.

It is believed that 12 per cent of the country's children are overweight and another 22 per cent are susceptible to obesity because of a lack of exercise and poor diet, according to official MoH figures. Dr Kathrin Foehe, a paediatrician based at the ISIS French Clinic, said more needed to be done by the ministries of health and education to catch children as young as possible to prevent the condition, which can lead in later life to serious health problems and premature mortality.

"Improving the awareness would help a lot to better the situation but of course individualised care is much more effective," she said. "By individualised care I mean regular examinations, like the National Child Measurement Programme in the UK. "Even better would be standard check-ups for children every year where the children are measured for weight and height and a physical exam is performed along with a developmental evaluation."

She also said children should have speech, hearing and eye tests before each school year. They should also be checked for immunisations, she added. Since 2005, the British National Health Service has weighed and measured all children in their first and last years of primary school. The resulting data are used to plan services for children, to monitor obesity and to plan healthy lifestyle campaigns.

The Dubai-based doctor said that while obesity was a big problem among the Arab community, many expatriate families had also seen their children's health deteriorate after moving to the UAE. She put this down to inactivity during the summer, and poor nutrition in schools. Dr Bariah Dardari, a paediatrician at the American Hospital in Dubai, said that input from doctors was vital to forming an effective, nationwide policy on tackling obesity.

Dr Dardari said in the US, where she trained, doctors met regularly within each state and were involved strongly with Congress in such matters. "Paediatricians are given guidelines on how to intervene when they see warning signs in children," she said. "They start assessing and monitoring at a very early age. We have to identify children who are at risk of obesity based on family history and so on."

At Wesgreen School, in Sharjah, Mohammed Nasif, the head of physical education, said he had been trying to begin annual tests this year, and hoped to have them in place by September. "I would like to get someone from the local university to come in and see the students and assess them each year," he said. "It isn't enough to just have this at individual schools though; it needs to be nationwide and supported by the Ministry of Health, and pushed in schools by head teachers and physical education teachers."

He said many unhealthy and overweight children did not get enough support from their families, who even sent some of them to school with junk food and fizzy drinks. mswan@thenational.ae