Unhealthy outlook for the folk of the Northern Emirates

Health survey finds high rates of allergies, anaemia and respiratory problems.

DUBAI // People living in the Northern Emirates are heavy smokers, more prone to respiratory problems due to poor air quality and more likely to suffer from allergies than those in any other part of the country, according to a comprehensive survey of the state of the nation's health. More than 35,000 people - local and expatriate - from the seven emirates were interviewed for the Zayed University study, which aims to determine the geographic inequalities in the population's well-being.

Preliminary findings from the Northern Emirates, the first data to be analysed, has already given researchers insight into the problems of the area. Forty per cent were found to smoke - either tobacco or shisha - while a further 37 per cent were exposed to passive smoke from those around them. Eighteen per cent lived near an industrial plant, petrol station, construction site or rubbish dump. Emiratis living in these areas are more likely to suffer from respiratory diseases such as asthma, rhinitis or emphysema.

Poor air quality is an issue in parts of the Northern Emirates, with residents complaining of their villages being blanketed by dust from nearby quarries. Other indoor and outdoor factors include pesticides and pets in the home. Anaemia, caused by genetics or a poor diet, is also a problem, along with food allergies. Of particular interest to the researchers are the 15 per cent in the Northern Emirates who live near overhead power lines. Very little research has been done on the possible effects but risks are believed to include radiation and cancer.

"This research is so important as we don't know the long-term effects of such exposure," said Dr Rania Dghaim, one of the researchers from Zayed University. "We might be able to provide some light on this very important area of research once the analysis is complete." From the findings, a snapshot of all emirates also highlighted a worrying trend for risk-taking behaviour such as smoking, high-speed driving and riding without wearing a seat belt.

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Dr Dghaim and her colleague Dr Caroline Barakat, who is now based at the University of Toronto, began the project in 2007 but have finally begun to assess the results, starting with the Northern Emirates. The project began as a general study of 6,500 youths aged 15 to 19 in the UAE but has been broadened to include their siblings and parents. This is to establish patterns such as genetics in illness and environmental factors that might affect the children. The research assessed lifestyle factors, electro-magnetic fields from power lines and water and air quality.

Dr Dghaim, who has been at Zayed University for nine years, and her colleague, contacted the Ministry of Education to collaborate with them, hoping the results could be used to create curriculum, such as the inclusion of road safety, or smoking and nutritional awareness courses and physical activities. The results will be shared with the country's health authorities. The ministry provided 100 social workers to carry out the one-on-one surveys around the country, from Ras al Khaimah to the remote Western Region. They were conducted at 103 schools.

The sample was broken down to reflect the populations across the emirates, 48 per cent coming from Abu Dhabi, nine from Dubai, four from Ajman, eight from Fujairah, 10 from RAK, 18 from Sharjah and two from Umm al Quwain. Respondents were asked detailed questions on areas such as their medical diagnosis, perceived health and lifestyle behaviour such as exercise, smoking or drug use. Dr Barakat said: "Health data in the UAE is very scarce and incomplete. I wanted to provide a baseline of data that future research can build upon and for which there will be important policy recommendations and implications that will improve the health of the UAE population.

"The UAE has experienced unprecedented growth in the past few decades. Many policies appeared to have focused on economic growth and development, with little focus or time on building a health database. "However, with this growth, environmental changes and changes to lifestyles are inevitable. Growth also meant that the spotlight was shed on cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai and, therefore, this led to my interest to undertake this research.

"Each community has unique features. The rapid development in Abu Dhabi and Dubai will lead to lifestyle changes such as smoking. Such a mobile society needs a unified health policy," Dr Barakat said. So far, the largest proportion of the sample living beside industrial sites was found in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi, with 26 per cent of the sample while in RAK, this was 21 per cent. Sha'am hospital in RAK treats as many as 40 asthma patients a day, most of them children between the ages of two and 10. Asthma cases were rare 15 years ago, veteran nurses said.

"Eighty per cent of the children here have asthma," claimed one young man, who did not wish to be named, speaking of his village. "I go to the hospital every day for my sister's baby and for my brothers', it's the same." Five of his 16 nieces and nephews who live in Ghalilah have asthma. None of his seven nieces and nephews in Abu Dhabi have respiratory problems. Abdulla al Shehhi, a member of the Federal National Council from Khor Khwair and the former director of Ibrahim bin Hamad Obaidallah Hospital, said authorities must do more to protect public health.

"Now in RAK they put crushers everywhere, in the whole of the mountains. The dust is everywhere," he said. Dr Shereen Habib, who is based in Dubai, sees many patients from the Northern Emirates, many of whom suffer with allergies and have extreme rhinitis and sinusitis. Planning of industrial areas must take schools and residential areas into consideration, she said. "If there is a fire on an industrial area, this will cause direct problems to those living close by or in schools," she said.

Dr Dghaim said that the UAE has a young population. "It's important to look at the health statistics of these children so we can look at the future of this population and do longitudinal health studies. Hopefully this will provide a UAE database for such information," Dr Dghaim said. Dr Barakat explained that the young are more vulnerable as they spend more time outdoors, are growing, breathe more air volume per weight and drink more water.

"The main barrier to this research is support, financial resources and research manpower," she said. "More funding and support are required to speed this up. Hopefully, this will end up with a series of publications and possibly a book on the links between fast development and health, but it's a vital study for the UAE." @Email:mswan@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Anna Zacharias