Official concern grows over rising child obesity

The UAE must do more to curb childhood obesity, health and education officials warn.

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The UAE must do more to curb childhood obesity, health and education officials are warning. In an interview on the sidelines of the TeachME conference in Dubai, Dr Mariam al Matroushi, the central school health director at the Ministry of Health, called for the introduction of a unified national policy to deal with growing numbers of overweight children. "We have an increasing rate of obesity," Dr al Matroushi said, pointing to research showing obesity to be steadily climbing among schoolchildren.

In 2001, 5.6 per cent of them were obese - but the number has risen to 7.5 per cent by last year. The numbers are most dramatic in Grade 9, where 10.9 per cent of schoolchildren are obese. "It's a big problem," said Salem al Hamdi, the principal of the Abu Dhabi Primary School. Mr al Hamdi said he would like to see more time and resources devoted to physical education. Ahmed Abdul Rahman, the project manager for Princess Haya's Initiative for the Development of Health, Physical Education and School Sports, who also participated in the panel on health at the two-day conference, agreed that more should be done to combat childhood obesity.

Dubai has made strides in addressing the problem, Mr Abdul Rahman said, particularly in overhauling the school curriculum, but he added that he also would like to see more time devoted to physical education in schools. "In schools we have only two periods of physical education a week," he said. "We think it's not enough. One solution we are offering is to have after-school activities for the students."

Mr Rahman's organisation has encouraged schools to start after-school sport programmes - which do not exist in most state schools. Dr al Matroushi stressed that the Government needed to develop a cohesive policy for all schools. "We have our own initiatives regarding obesity," she said, referring to the health authority's work in schools, and added that other stakeholders, such as Unicef and the office of Princess Haya, were working on their own programmes.

"Sometimes we all collaborate together, but we need a unified strategy that gathers all the partners and addresses the different issues in preventing obesity." According to Dr al Matroushi, more attention needed to be focused both on nutrition and on the physical education curriculum at state schools. "It's very urgent because we have the second highest prevalence of diabetes," she said. A World Health Organisation study found that a third of children in the UAE were either overweight or at risk of developing obesity.