Pupils aged eight to be tested for risk of diabetes

Children in Dubai will be checked for obesity and cholesterol levels as health bosses try to stem spread of deadly disease.

DUBAI // Thousands of Dubai pupils will be tested for diabetes risk factors, as part of an attempt to prevent the disease from plaguing the next generation. Doctors will examine pupils between the ages of eight and 15 at 10 private and public schools for risk factors such as high cholesterol and obesity to determine if they have a greater chance of contracting the condition later in life.

The pilot programme, which will be launched later this year, was announced yesterday by the Dubai Health Authority (DHA). It is part of a three-year plan to tackle the rising rate of diabetes. One in four people in the UAE - both Emirati and expatriate - is diabetic. The disease damages the body's ability to process sugar in the blood, and can lead to blindness and death. Qadhi Saeed al Murooshid, the authority's director general, said: "This region has an extremely high percentage rate of diabetics.

"It raises serious concerns for us. The aim of this programme is to identify the risks and work very hard on prevention." The screening will include measuring the pupils' body mass index (BMI), which uses height and weight to calculate healthy weights. They will also have blood tests, but only if their parents give their permission. The project, called The Right Beginning, will also educate the children about how to live a healthy lifestyle.

Heba al Shaar, a member of the DHA's diabetes committee said the pilot screening programme was a good starting point for more comprehensive research. "We can't go into every school in Dubai, we have to take a representative sample and from this we can draw our conclusions." The authority was considering launching a similar scheme for adults, she added. Dr Ziad Najjar, a public health and health promotion specialist at the authority, said the data could be used to make formulate new anti-diabetes campaigns and policies.

"Once we identify the current situation and look at data showing what people think about diabetes ... we will be able to identify possible new rules and regulations," he said. He noted, for instance, that although there are rules governing what food is sold in school canteens, authorities are aware they are not properly enforced. Mr al Murooshid added that the DHA was looking to recruit more dedicated paediatric endocrinologists, who can treat diabetes in children.

Up to 70 per cent of the UAE's health budget goes toward treating conditions linked to diabetes, such as cardiovascular disease, he said. "The majority of our [health] spending in our country is either directly or non-directly linked to diabetes," said Mr al Murooshid. "We cannot wait until the percentage [of diabetics] gets higher. We need to start somewhere, and education and prevention is a very good start."

There are plans to train teachers, parents and health care providers to better educate children about diabetes and help encourage them to adopt healthy lifestyles. Dr Abdulrazzak al Madani, the chief executive of Dubai Hospital and head of the Emirates Diabetes Society, said encouraging parents, particularly mothers, to educate their children about the dangers of an unhealthy diet would make a huge difference.

"The sooner the children get tested, the easier it will be to prevent diabetes," he said. The DHA did not say when the testing project, a joint initiative with the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-aventis Gulf, would start or finish, or how much it would cost. Dr Ali al Marzouqi, the authority's head of public health and safety, said if the rate of diabetes continued to rise as it has in recent years, around 35 per cent of the population would probably be affected within 10 years.

"It might reach up to 35 per cent, if not more. Our primary target here is initially to stabilise the trend and prevent further cases," said Dr al Marzouqi. The UAE has the second-highest rate of type-2 diabetes in the world behind Nauru, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. @Email:munderwood@thenational.ae