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Thu 8 Nov 2007 01:09 PM

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The silent killer

It's not just Emiratis at risk from diabetes, doctors are also seeing huge rises among UAE expatriates.

‘I used to be very sporty at college, but as I got older, I guess I started working too hard and stopped looking after myself properly,' says Dubai resident Graham Dunn, telling a story that will strike fear into many people in a similar position. ‘One day I felt like I was having a heart attack, so I rushed to the doctor. When he got my test results back, he called me in immediately and said, "You're a time bomb waiting to go off. If you don't do something soon, you will die." I was 42.

I had no idea diabetes could creep up on you like that - it's not as if I was ever obese.'

Though his experience may sound like an extreme case, it's not. In the UAE, 19.5 per cent of the adult population has diabetes. And that's not including those who don't realise they have it yet. This staggering statistic beats every other country on the planet, with the exception of Nauru, a tiny Pacific island where over 30 per cent of the population suffers from the disease.

The implications of this are profound. Diabetes - known as the ‘silent killer' because symptoms can go unnoticed for years - is deadly if left untreated. Around the world, someone dies from it every 10 seconds and it kills as many people as HIV-AIDS. Left unchecked, patients are more likely to suffer strokes, heart attacks, blindness and organ failure.

‘I got diabetes from my father. It was genetic,' says Saoud Al Faheem, a 20-year-old UAE national, currently studying business at the University of Dubai. ‘My cousin has it, as have lots of my friends. I wasn't diagnosed until my grandfather died and I got very stressed, but I probably had it for quite a few years before that.' Indeed, research has revealed that the Emirati population is genetically more pre-disposed to the disease.

However, it's not just Emiratis who are at risk. Doctors are also seeing huge rises among the UAE's expatriate population - where stress, long working hours, lack of exercise and poor diets undo the work of favourable genes.

The good news is that if you haven't already contracted the disease, there are plenty of things you can do to ensure you never get it. And if you are one of the unlucky 20 per cent, a few - admittedly pretty large - lifestyle changes can keep diabetes under control.

Dr Suresh Menon is a Specialist Physician at Jebel Ali hospital. He is involved in the month-long drive to raise public awareness about the disease, the focus of which is Diabetes Day on November 14. As part of the campaign, an awareness stand is currently open every day at Ibn Battuta Mall, where free check-ups are available to the public.

Dr. Menon says it is vital that anyone who falls into any of the potential risk categories should seek medical attention. ‘Overweight and obese people are particularly at risk,' he cautions. Family history is another one to watch. ‘If either of your parents is a diabetic, you have a 25 per cent chance of developing diabetes before you are 40. If both your parents are sufferers, that figure jumps to around 50 per cent. The other big factor is lifestyle. If your diet is poor and you don't exercise, then you also fall into the at-risk category.' In other words, the Dubai lifestyle - which basically amounts to ‘work hard, play hard', or just ‘work even harder' - plays havoc on our physical wellbeing.

Most people will have heard of diabetes before - history books mention the affliction 3,500 years ago. Type one diabetes usually occurs early in childhood or early adulthood when the body fails to produce insulin. In this case a controlled diet and insulin injections are the only solution.

Type two - the one Dubai doctors are focusing on this month - happens later in life when the body stops producing the required amount of insulin. The result is that the body cannot control blood sugar levels, and the results can be disastrous. ‘Blood sugar levels build, causing a disease of the blood vessels. This can lead to a failure of your kidneys, cardiac problems, strokes and blurred vision,' says Dr. Menon.

Once diagnosed, diabetics must change their diets to maintain constant sugar levels and avoid dangerous peaks and troughs. ‘I was never a big sweet eater, but I used to drink a lot of concentrated fruit juices and beer and eat a lot of red meat, so I had to stop all that,' explains Graham.

But his new meal regime hasn't been all about denial. ‘I actually eat more on my new high fibre diet than I used to,' he reveals. ‘It's just that I have to keep my sugar levels constant'. Saoud agrees, ‘If I eat too many sweets, it makes me feel so weak; I really feel the condition then. So I stop eating them.'

Although the disease often has few warning signs, there are changes that Dr. Menon recommends people look out for. ‘Increased frequency of urination, excessive thirst or hunger, unusual weight loss, unexplained and increased fatigue, irritability and blurry vision are all warning signs,' he says. ‘If you notice any one of these symptoms over a few weeks, you definitely should see your doctor. But these are only warning signs; there are no classical symptoms of diabetes.' Which is why, according to Dr. Menon, a check-up is vital for anyone who thinks they might be at risk.

Luckily, Dr. Menon doesn't just paint a picture of doom and gloom. One of the aims of Unite For Diabetes is to instil the notion that the onset of diabetes does not mean people have to give up on a full and active lifestyle. ‘If you're diagnosed early and you get enough good treatment, then with good guidance from a doctor, it is possible to bring your diabetes under control,' he says.

‘If you have a good exercise and diet regime then you can be as fit as a non-diabetic.'

Graham is a shining example of how diabetes can be flipped from disaster to fortunate wake-up call.

‘I feel much better now than I did before I knew I had diabetes; I have more energy and I've lost weight.' He also just returned from a ‘Jewels of Arabia' adventure trip to Jordan with Mountain High (www.mountainhighme.com) to raise diabetes awareness. ‘Although I didn't quite make it to the top of Jebel Um Al Dami, Jordan's highest peak, I'm still proud of getting close.

But one of the things I'm most pleased about is that now I know I have this, I know how to deal with it and I know I'm not going to be one of those guys who keels over at 50 and no one knows what happened to them.'

Diabetes eventsDubai is going diabetes awareness crazy on November 14 for World Diabetes Day, and throughout the rest of the month.

Ibn Battuta Mall stores are selling Unite For Diabetes bracelets for Dhs10 (www.unitefordiabetes.org), with the funds going to the National Diabetes Committee in the UAE. The Unite For Diabetes kiosk is also located there, offering free blood pressure and sugar level tests from 10am to 10pm. On the big day itself, the mall will be giving away a car (a Kia Sportage 2008) Other activities from 6pm-10pm will include magicians, face painters, stilt walkers, an ‘on stage' marathon from Fitness First, a Unite For Diabetes signature circle around the floor of China Court, as well as a human circle at 9pm in anticipation of the draw to reveal who's won the car.

Alternatively, more than 10,000 people are expected to take part in WALK UAE 2007, marching a 5km route in Abu Dhabi on November 23. Set to start at 3pm from Abu Dhabi corniche, check www.diabetesuae.ae for more information. And starting this week and continuing until next November, Bin Sina Pharmacies, in partnership with the Ministry of Health, will be offering blood sugar, obesity and cholesterol level checks for just Dhs15, as part of a national campaign to fight diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity. For more information on other diabetes doings, check www.worlddiabetesday.org.

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