Children lack knowledge on healthy lifestyles

A report shows children are healthier but do not have enough health information", among them the fact that 25 per cent of under-10s have smoked.

ABU DHABI // The General Women's Union report on children paints a broadly positive picture of child and maternal health in the UAE. It does, however, note some problems - particularly in relation to obesity, genetic diseases and smoking.

While praising recent initiatives to tackle both, it states that "children do not have enough health information".

This, it says, creates "a knowledge gap which persists as they take on unhealthy lifestyles".

Sammar Farah, from Dubai School of Government, suggested a lack of physical education in schools was behind the growth in child obesity.

According to a 2005 study, 74 per cent of children were either overweight or obese. "The ministry has, this year, increased the hours spent in PE," she said. However, "it isn't about the number of hours, but how they are spent".

"There are small steps being taken to improve kids' health in schools, but still more can be done. For example, specialists can come and talk to the kids to raise awareness," she said.

One in five children under the age of five have anaemia, the report says. "There is not enough knowledge on the importance of healthy eating, malnutrition is an issue," said Dr Gowri Ramanathan, an obstetrics and gynaecology consultant at Corniche Hospital.

The report also calls for more research into genetic disorders and new centres to detect hereditary diseases before birth, and other potential problems before marriage.

The report noted that, between 1999 and 2008, 14.1 children in every 1,000 children suffered thalassaemia, an inherited blood disorder.

"This is a very big problem," said Dr Ramanathan. He continued that marriage practices contributed to the problem.

"There should be appropriate screenings, and counselling before marriage, and pregnant women need to seek early medical care to lessen this problem."

A law passed in 2005 states that couples need to be tested for genetic diseases before marriage. But testing is subject to the hospital or medical centre a couple attend.

There have been big strides made in the area of maternal health: a health professional now present for 99.9 per cent of all births. "When a women is giving birth, it is crucial that a medical professional is present as every second is vital," said Dr Mohamed el Abiary, the head of paediatrics at Zayed Military Hospital.

"In the last 20 years especially, women and children's health care has improved dramatically. Our statistics are now the same as some statistics abroad."

As a result, maternal deaths have ceased to be a problem - since 2004, not one has been reported.

This has been achieved through "awareness campaigns and health centres which have helped them to move towards a healthier lifestyle", according to the study.

There has also been a decrease in deaths of children under the age of 5 in the past 15 years.

In 1990, there were 14.4 deaths per 1,000 children, and - based on current trends - that number will drop to 4.8 deaths per 1,000 children by the year 2015.

Smoking among children is a "big issue" which "needs to be addressed": many under the age of 10 reportedly smoke "to link themselves with manhood". A quarter of children under 10 have tried smoking, and a third of teenagers smoke, which "forms a concern for the children's future".

There are no statistics on drug use, but interviews with children and teenagers found some had been found to mix legal drugs bought in pharmacies with energy drinks - now banned from sale to children- to get a "buzz".