GCC Paediatric Healthcare Strategies

Pharma IQ

The countries within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – have all experienced rapid economic growth in recent years. But this has come at a cost.

The region's young population is now leading a sedentary lifestyle, increasing the risk factors for cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) and diabetes, which are already prevalent in the Middle East.

Around 10 percent of school children in the GCC countries are now considered to be overweight or obese, with the main causes being named as a lack of exercise and a poor diet.

Many of these children are also likely to remain overweight into adulthood, and countries are now realising the need to boost awareness of the ticking time bomb and improve not only paediatric healthcare, but also education.

Holger Micheel-Sprenger, partner and managing director at ICME Healthcare, noted: "No other region in the world faces such rapid growth in demand with the simultaneous need to realign its health-care systems to be able to treat the disorders of affluence."

Combating obesity 

CVDs are already the main cause of death in Oman, and levels of diabetes and hypertension in the young members of the population have been described as being dangerously high.

Indeed, World Health Organisation (WHO) data shows the risk has increased in all GCC countries, more so in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In particular these diseases affect a far young population in the Gulf than they do in western nations.

Obesity among young children can also lead to psychological issues, particularly as they enter adolescence, and research has shown that the gap between obesity rates in the UAE and international levels really opens up once people reach their late teens.

If this trend is to be halted, education and awareness must start when children are young and healthcare professionals must convey the need for a change in attitudes and raise awareness of the risk factors which are heightened by obesity.

Lara Hussein, chief of child protection and officer in charge for Unicef Gulf Area, told the Khaleej Times: "In the UAE, culture plays a big part in overfeeding children. Large portions and indulging children in fatty foods are related to love."

"About 19.7 percent of children in the country are obese because of being influenced by a friend to eat unhealthy foods, the absence of family control, the increase in fast food restaurants and lack of education and awareness about keeping a healthy lifestyle," she added.

Paediatric healthcare advancements

The treatment of epilepsy is also a major focus for paediatric healthcare practitioners operating within the GCC, with "groundbreaking" surgeries taking place in the UAE recently.

Four children attending the Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi recently became the first in the country to undergo surgery to successfully be implanted with the vagus nerve stimulator (VNS).

Currently 50 million people worldwide are thought to suffer from epilepsy, with 90 percent of these living in regions defined as developing, according to the WHO. 

The VNS device, which was also recently introduced in Qatar by the Neurology Surgery Department of Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC), sends electric stimulants to the vagus nerves to help prevent seizures in those who are unreactive to epilepsy drugs.

Dr. Khaled Zamel, chief of paediatric neurology at Mafraq Hospital, said 30 percent of epilepsy sufferers continue to experience symptoms despite receiving drug therapy.

Chief medical officer at the hospital Dr. Mohammad Yama added: "The operation is a small price to pay for a dramatic increase in the quality of life for our young people."

Efforts to address the problems with epilepsy across the GCC region are also being complemented with workshops, like that recently held by HMC in Qatar. During the past five years, prevalence of epilepsy among the population of Qatar has increased by 2 percent.

"The workshop focused on the need for community health education, where public awareness about epilepsy and the various techniques in use for its treatment and seizure control, should be increased," Dr. Amna Al Mutawa, specialist neurologist at HMC, who represented the interests of families with epileptic children, noted.