UAE University opts for research centre

The head of UAE University announces that the school plans to establish a public health research institute.

AL AIN // After a week of working through the unique health problems facing the country, the head of UAE University announced yesterday that the school planned to establish a public health research institute. The centre, due to open within a year, will forge links with "the best scholars in the world" according to Rory Hume, the university provost. The university, which this week played host to the Global Health and the UAE conference, aims to recruit up to 30 extra researchers to help staff the institute for global health.

"To be effective it will need to have at least 15 and up to 30 additional scientists working on areas of value to the country," Dr Hume said. "We hope to get it up to that size within a year. "This country can help itself and help out countries in the region by understanding diseases and the effectiveness of the intervention we do." Delegates to the conference, including health scientists from North America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, considered topics ranging from the effect of shisha smoking on male fertility to the spread of infectious disease by air travel.

It is hoped that the institute will address one of the key shortcomings repeatedly identified by speakers: the paucity of hard data in many areas. Mohamed Baniyas, the interim dean at UAEU's faculty of medicine and health sciences, said more had to be done to train Emiratis in health care and to gather information on disease prevalence. He said delegates demonstrated health care services were "a complex model" that required multiple approaches to achieve improvements.

"That starts with training physicians, building infrastructure, planning between different health segments and partnerships of government and private [sector]." The need for more information was echoed at a conference in Egpyt on Thursday, where Princess Haya bint Al Hussain, the wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, called for more funds for medical research.

Speaking at a medical conference at the Aswan Heart Centre in Egypt, Princess Haya said improvements in treating children with heart problems over the past 25 years were only possible because of "adequate funding". "Many efforts have been made, but much more needs to be done as we acquire more experience and develop better relationships with international groups to spread the benefits of medical research as widely as possible," she said.

The Al Ain conference particularly talked about genetic disorders common in the UAE, which is ranked sixth of 193 countries for the prevalence of birth defects, largely because of intermarriage, especially between cousins. Lihadh al Gazali, a professor of clinical genetics and paediatrics in UAE University's faculty of medicine and health sciences, said that while premarital screening of couples was common, those found to be at risk of having children with genetic disorders had "no available options".

Such couples have to choose between separating before having children or going ahead with the risk that their offspring will have genetic diseases. Abortion is illegal, so foetuses with genetic abnormalities cannot be terminated. "If they ask, 'What can we do,' and you tell them, 'You have to separate,' they just ignore you," Dr al Gazali said. In addition to staying together and choosing not to have children, a possible solution is to allow at-risk couples to undergo in-vitro fertilisation and screen embryos for abnormalities before implantation.

This is commonly done in Saudi Arabia, Dr al Gazali said, but was not available here. "It's allowed in Islam because it's done when the embryo is in the very early stages of cell division. There's no killing," she said. The technique is expensive and in the UAE there was limited awareness of its value, she added. "We need to continue to change to give more options for women so the screening programmes become more effective, because if people don't have options they will not take your advice."