Diabetes could ‘devastate’ Gulf economy, says expert

At least 20% of UAE, Saudi population affected; need to change lifestyle, education
Diabetes could ‘devastate’ Gulf economy, says expert
An estimated 20 percent of the UAE economy is affected by diabetes
By Karen Leigh
Mon 17 Jan 2011 06:09 PM

A
top diabetes official said diabetes in the Gulf and UAE could potentially have
a devastating effect on the local economy if levels were left untreated.

“Given
the impression I got when were [in Dubai], there’s a high level of
understanding at the political levels of the potential devastating effect of
diabetes in the region in terms of lifestyle and the emerging obesity
epidemic,” Lars Sorenson, president and CEO of Copenhagen-based healthcare
company Novo Nordisk, told Arabian Business.

He
said the higher the income level per country, the greater the risk of diabetes.

“You
even have to be concerned about Iraq going forward – the war has stopped and
income levels are going up again so lifestyles will be impacted.”

General
lack of knowledge and education in the population could be an
insurmountable obstacle, said Sorenson.

“The
general public awareness is similar to other countries of the same income
background. So unfortunately it is a problem of a lack of public awareness, and
it’s important that [health care professionals] get a chance to meet
politicians and people from Treasury who aren’t working on public health issues
all the time… but need to know about the topic to prevent it from becoming a
challenge,” he said.

In
the UAE, where an estimated 20-25 percent of the adult population has the
disease, an increasingly sedentary Western lifestyle is the blame. Sorenson
said Oman, Qatar and Bahrain followed the same pattern.

“It
was lack of activity comparable to other countries of other income levels – but
the MENA region is nitrogenous, so there are countries where it’s not as much
of a problem,” he said, citing poorer, less-Western countries like Yemen.

“Yemen
has lowest income per capita, so people are living rural hard lives and that
means that the prevalence of diabetes is much less,” he said.

“We’ve
seen this in similar environments in Africa – to sustain life in poor-income
countries, people gravitate towards urban areas, and now within the urban areas
you see a blowup in diabetes.”

He
said that in the next few decades, the economy would take the brunt of the
epidemic, with soaring health care costs.

“While
it may not be a major issue at this point in time, it’s likely to,” he said.
“The UAE has the highest prevalence in the region, together with Saudi – almost
20 pct of the adult population there has diabetes. That’s one in every family.
So it is likely to change the public perception of diabetes because it’ll be
less stigmatized when people all know someone who has it.”

Experience
in the US and Europe has taught researchers that diabetes is one of the most
costly diseases to a healthcare system. Still, the disease itself – if caught
early – is inexpensive when treated on an individual basis.

“The
[early] medicines are affordable – it’s when they’re not getting proper
treatment and we get very serious health issues like kidney failure, strokes,
cardiovascular disease, the amputations and blindess,” he said. “These all stem
from diabetes, and are likely to be one of the biggest public health costs to
any public country.”

Most
Gulf countries have underestimated the illness’s impact.

“It’s
often countries in transition economically, and they’re dealing with trying to
build infrastructure, trying to build schools and social security… most have
underestimated how difficult it is to get politicians to understand that this
needs to be addressed,” he said. “The UAE [government] seems to understand the
issue and I think there’s reason to be optimistic that opportunities will
emerge from this.”

But
the impact of culture on diet and lifestyle remains key.

“They’re
impacted by the culture of individual people, and it’s very hard to change
culture,” Sorenson said. “So the middle income countries will get worse before
they get better. In the meantime the main thing is to insure there’s health
care capacity to treat diabetes.”

 

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