Health officials from the GCC countries are calling for tough measures to fight the increasing figures of diabetes in the region after a recent study found that Gulf States make up five of the top ten countries with the highest rates of diabetes on earth.
Tawfiq Khouja, who heads the Executive Office of Health Ministers at the GCC, said Gulf states must adopt an aggressive strategy to combat the disease.
“It’s time to create a supreme national council to fight diabetes which will include officials who have decision-making authorities,” Khouja told local media.
“The problem is lifestyle,” Kerrita McClaughlyn, Media Relations Manager at the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) told The Media Line.
The IDF is an umbrella organization of over 200 national diabetes associations in over 160 countries.
“Type 2 diabetes is on the rise in the Gulf because people are getting wealthier and along with increased wealth comes lack of exercise, eating more and having a Western lifestyle,” McClaughlyn said. “That contributes to a rise in obesity rates, which in many cases leads to diabetes.”
“A lot of governments in the Middle East are now starting to address the problem through prevention courses and trying to encourage more physical activity among the population,” she added.
The prevalence of diabetes is increasing on a global scale.
In 1985, 30 million people were diagnosed with diabetes worldwide. In 2000 the figure shot up to 170 million and in 2006, 246 million. Presently the number stands at 285 million.
Diabetes claims four million lives every year and is a leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes and amputations.
McClaughlyn argued that part of the problem is that people in the Middle East are genetically at a higher risk, but stressed that the Middle Eastern diet, which includes a lot of fats and sweets, compounds the problem into a “time bomb”.
“The diet contains a lot of fats and sugars, which is fine if you’re increasing exercise to burn them off. But if you’re still sedentary, and you’re eating the sweets, fats, McDonald’s and other fast foods, you’re dramatically increasing the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.”
Sharoud Al Jundi Matthis, Program Manager at the Qatar Diabetes Association, said the genetic factor played a key role in the disease.
“Diabetes already affects so many families in the Gulf and they have the tradition of marrying cousins which concentrates the gene pool,” she told The Media Line. “Diabetes is being discussed and talked about at every level of the health system in the Gulf.”
Al Jundi Matthis said awareness campaigns and education were spreading in Qatar.
“The QDA, the Qatar Foundation, the Supreme Council of Health and Hamad Medical Center are all working on cooperation programs on all levels to formulate nutritional guidelines and non-communicative disease management guidelines for Qatar,” she said.
The campaigns are targeting both healthcare professionals and the wider public to manage the disease.
“The QDA is also working with the Qatar Supreme Council for Education to work extensively with the students at the schools in Qatar after an alarming study showed 40% of them are obese,” she added.
Recent statistics released by the International Diabetes Federation place the United Arab Emirates as having second worst diabetes rate in the world, with 18.7% of the population suffering from the disease.
Saudi Arabia follows close behind with 16.8% of its adult population suffering from diabetes. Bahrain (15.4%) was ranked fifth, Kuwait (14.6%) seventh and Oman (13.4%) eighth.
Topping the list is the Pacific island nation of Nauru, with almost one third of its adult population (30.9%) living with the disease.
In Qatar, health officials have found diabetes to be on the rise. Officials from the Qatar Diabetes Association said that previous surveys showing a downward trend in diabetes cases were not accurate.
Khouja said Gulf countries must take the initiative to apply a strategy that will encourage residents of the Gulf to eat healthily, do more exercise and smoke less.
The GCC is a political and economic union involving six Arab states, which include the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.