ABU DHABI // A mass health screening of schoolchildren has found two thirds had decaying teeth, almost half had weight problems and a third were anaemic.
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The tests, in mobile clinics run by the Abu Dhabi health-services company Seha, also found 15 per cent of children had abnormal vision, 7 per cent had abnormal hearing and 1 per cent had scoliosis, or curvature of the spine.
Ahmed Lari, director of marketing at Seha's Ambulatory Healthcare Services, described the results as "shocking and worrying".
Seha screened 25,778 boys and girls in Grades 1, 5 and 9 at public schools in the capital, Al Ain and Al Gharbia during the 2010/2011 academic year.
Each mobile clinic was staffed by a doctor, a nurse, a dentist, a dental assistant and a laboratory technician. The children were tested for cavities and tooth decay, obesity and malnutrition, anaemia, vision problems, hearing problems and scoliosis.
Sixty-four per cent had poor dental hygiene and showed signs of tooth decay. A haemoglobin test found nearly 30 per cent were anaemic.
Only 58 per cent had a normal weight for their height, 29 per cent were either overweight or obese, and 13 per cent were underweight.
Dr Mubarak Al Darmaki, in charge of health management at Abu Dhabi Education Council, said they had only recently received the results from Seha.
"The next step will be deep analysis of the problem," he said. "At this age group, we have to consider the onset of puberty as a possible cause for iron deficiency in girls. But a healthy diet rich in iron might be an important intervention - part of educating the pupils about healthy choices."
He said Adec also planned to introduce an oral hygiene programme for nursery-school children. "Adec not only provides healthy-eating classes but partners with specialist health institutions, such as the nutrition department at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, to educate pupils," he said.
Dr Ashievanghuie Deboo, a specialist dentist at the Mathur Dental and Orthodontic Clinic in Dubai, said tooth decay was the major cause for concern.
“Parents do not consider dental hygiene when the children are young because they think the milk teeth will fall off anyway,” she said. “They don’t do anything unless the child complains of pain.”
Her own research into child tooth decay, conducted at private schools in Dubai in 2009, revealed similar results, she said.
Dr Deboo said ignoring dental problems at an early age could infect permanent teeth too; if a milk tooth is infected, the other teeth are susceptible.
“Healthy food, along with ensuring the children brush twice a day, is essential,” she said.
Samira Al Nuaimi, vice principal of Salamah bint Butti School in Bani Yas, also said the responsibility for good dental hygiene and eating habits lay with parents.
“At our school, the nurse conducts health camps and activities,” said Mrs Al Nuaimi, who has five children of her own at Abu Dhabi public schools. “But parents play a very big role in ensuring their children pick up healthy habits. Dental issues also crop up because children have so much sugary food.”
She said it was important for parents to pack nutritional lunches to eat at school. “I do it for my children, but quite often I see other parents who are not that involved and leave their kids to snack on junk food.”
Ms Al Nuaimi said children talk about having fizzy drinks and sweets late at night. “They even come to school with energy drinks which are full of sugar. We take it away from them when we can but, frankly, their parents should be monitoring this.”
Unhealthy food will be off school menus from September after Adec issued new guidelines for school canteens, developed with Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority and the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi.
“Adec will organise a workshop before the beginning of the new academic year for approved food vendors and suppliers,” said Dr Al Darmaki. “We will educate and train them on healthy food as well as make them aware of what is expected from them under the new guidelines.”
Dr Al Darmaki said fizzy drinks had no dietary benefit and were not sold in schools. “Their overconsumption leads to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
“In addition, due to the high amounts of sugar, children are more prone to cavities.”
Seha and the AHS said there are plans to continue their health screening across all schools in the emirate, both private and public.
Seha was not available for further comment.