The amount of serious illness caused by diabetes in the UAE has dropped compared with other diseases such as cancer, new research has shown.
The findings come as authorities in the Emirates continue to encourage residents to exercise more frequently and eat more healthily.
In recent decades, rates of obesity and diabetes have soared in the Middle East and North Africa, in part due to sedentary lifestyles and poor diet.
More than one in six people in the UAE have diabetes and it is a factor in more than two-thirds of deaths of people aged under 60.
“We have seen significant increases in diabetes across the Middle East and North Africa,” said Dr Richard Sullivan, co-director of the Conflict and Health Research Group at King’s College London and one of the authors of the study.
“This has been due to a rapid nutritional transition and increases in body mass. [But the UAE] put in place an early public health intervention coupled to healthier foods and exercise.”
The new study was published in April in the American journal Plos One.
The paper details the proportion of ‘disability-adjusted life years’, or Dalys, caused by diabetes.
Dalys are defined as the number of healthy years of life lost due to disability or premature death.
Between 1996 and 2005, research found about 4.2 per cent of Dalys were lost due to diabetes, but between 2009 to 2018 the figure was around 3.75 per cent.
By contrast, over the same period, the proportion of Dalys accounted for by diabetes increased in all nine other countries surveyed – Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
“The extent of implementation of policies to tackle diabetes appears very limited in some of the Mena countries,” said Dr Preeti Patel, an expert in global health at King’s College London and another of the study’s authors.
“Very few countries have policies to tackle obesity and physical activity. Information-based campaigns educating and encouraging people to make more informed choices have had an influence.”
Dr Patel said one factor behind poor diet in the Mena region was a reliance on imported foodstuffs.
She said this increased the risk of residents consuming processed foods with high sugar, fat and salt content.
Several initiatives are ongoing to help improve health in the UAE, including a tax on sugary drinks and the Dubai Fitness Challenge, which last year encouraged 1.1 million people to complete 30 minutes of exercise every day for 30 days.
Dr Patel also cited efforts by the Ministry of Health and Prevention in the Emirates to reduce rates of non-communicable disease, and initiatives to promote healthier lifestyles.
Dr Raghib Ali, director of the Public Health Research Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi, said it was difficult to compare rates of diabetes over time because of the change in the UAE’s population due to immigration.
However, he said he thought the country was ahead of other GCC nations in introducing initiatives to reduce rates of disease.
“It’s fair to say that without interventions the situation would be even worse,” he said.
“The government is undertaking a lot of efforts, which should be applauded, but there’s still a long way to go to reduce the key risk factor for obesity, which is unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity.”