ABU DHABI // Gulf countries have been told that more must be done in response to the diabetes epidemic, especially when it comes to addressing the problem of undiagnosed patients.
A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, part of The Economist publishing and media group, claimed that not identifying sufferers quickly enough could put pressure on healthcare budgets and it offered a seven-point plan to improve detection.
UAE healthcare consultant Dr Alfons Grabosch warned in the report that, without intervention, diabetes rates in Abu Dhabi could rise to 50 per cent within a decade.
In 2011, the International Diabetes Federation estimated that about 40.6 per cent of diabetics in Middle Eastern high-income countries did not know they suffered from the condition.
The report on diabetes in the Gulf assessed the potential impact in the six GCC countries and stated that half the total population is at risk unless policy changes are made.
The well-worn messages have been simple – eat healthier, exercise more – but the number of diabetics continues to rise.
The EIU interviewed 18 diabetes experts in July and August to compile the report, including policy makers, government advisers, academics and health practitioners who are collectively recommending the seven-point plan to reduce the impact of diabetes.
An estimated 34 million people live with type II diabetes in the Mena region and about 19 per cent of the population is diagnosed in the UAE. The average global figure is 8.3 per cent.
Spending on treatment in the region last year was US$16.8 billion (Dh61.7bn) and is predicted to rise to US$24.7bn (Dh90.8bn) by 2035.
Direct treatment costs could rise significantly in Abu Dhabi, where it is expected to increase fourfold by 2030, the report said. The Weqaya programme, launched by Health Authority Abu Dhabi in 2008, screened about 200,000 Emiratis for diabetes, or early indicators. Checks were linked to health insurance cards and helped to achieve a 90 per cent participation rate.
Each screening cost Dh210 and diagnosed 18 per cent of Emirati cases, while a further 26 per cent were found to be pre-diabetic. Two thirds were either overweight or obese.
The Weqaya results clashed with health insurance data that claimed 5.3 per cent of Emiratis were diabetic, suggesting many cases are undiagnosed. These patients risked suffering expensive complications later in life that would be harder to treat, such as cardiovascular disease and kidney failure.
“This remains a substantial problem elsewhere in the UAE and in other countries in the region,” Dr Grabosch said.
A study of type II diabetes prevalence in Ajman published this month found 158 cases were diagnosed in a year – 35 per cent were male and 65 per cent female, with ages from 23 to 78.
The highest incidence rate was found in men aged 55 to 59.
The study was conducted in all primary healthcare centres and Sheikh Khalifa and GMC hospitals in the emirate.
Lifestyle habits are the biggest culprits of type II diabetes, which is the most common form. Blame has been apportioned largely to the growing popularity of western foods, heavily contributing to an obesity crisis. A sporadic and isolated policy response regionally has also fuelled the flames.
The World Health Organisation’s “best buys” policy to reduce salt intake in food, raise taxes on tobacco and alcohol and promote a healthy diet and exercise have not been universally adopted in Mena.
The EIU report also said religious leaders must be in tune with the diabetes message to aid its implementation in communities. A cross-governmental approach to include tough new regulations on food and beverages would also help control the problem.
Investment in health care remains relatively low for the GCC. Just 3.2 per cent of gross domestic product in the UAE is spent on health, compared with an average of 8.9 per cent in the 34 countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“Our research has revealed a number of opportunities to help combat the rise of diabetes in the Gulf region,” said Martin Koehring, the EIU report editor.
“From strengthening primary health care, to introducing tough new legislation and engaging community leaders, policymakers must adopt regional practices to tackle the growing burden of diabetes.”
The Ministry of Health and Dubai Health Authority were unavailable for comment.