Waistlines widen in Gulf states as economies grow - Emirates24|7

Waistlines widen in Gulf states as economies grow

About 2.3 billion people worldwide will be overweight by 2015 and more than 700 million of them will be obese, says the WHO report. (GETTY IMAGES)

 

The UAE's economic boom has been rivalled only by the rapidly expanding waistlines of its residents, which have left in their wake an over-stretched healthcare sector hungry for investment.

Enormous prosperity has bred a changing culture that leans more towards sedentary lifestyles and sugary, fast-food diets. And as a result, major health problems have rocketed in the UAE and the wider Middle East.

A third of adults in the UAE are obese and one out of five people lives with diabetes, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). In 2007, the UAE ranked second highest worldwide for diabetes prevalence, followed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

Similar patterns of extreme rapid wealth linked with obesity have been witnessed globally from countries as diverse as the United States and India. In fact, one third of all men and half of all women in India's upper middle class are considered to be obese. It is now the first developing nation to be put on a worldwide list to reduce obesity.

"The Gulf has an obesity problem of epidemic proportions and we are planning to make a significant, measurable and sustained effort to raise awareness of healthy eating habits and dealing with obesity," said Dr Abdulaziz I Al Othaimeen, senior scientist, clinical nutrition consultant and chairman of the scientific committee of clinical nutrition at Saudi Commission for Health Specialists.

He has teamed up with domestic equipment firm Tefal to launch a public health awareness campaign to stamp out obesity in the Gulf.

A major obesity summit will take place in Dubai this weekend, where the results of Al Othaimeen's latest research will reveal the alarming extent of the disease in the region.

The UAE's healthcare sector has faced a double-threat from increasingly static lifestyles of residents, as the likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes and hypertension rises steeply with increasing body fatness. This threat coupled with the fact that hospital beds in the GCC are around 2.1 per 1,000 people, compared to an OECD average of 6.1 beds per 1,000, according to Dubai-based private equity firm Abraaj Capital, means healthcare has opened itself up as a ripe investment opportunity.

Omar Lodhi, executive director at Abraaj, said: "In the GCC there is chronic under supply in the healthcare sector, with some of the highest instances of chronic lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, in the world. This has been a phenomenon over the last 20 or 30 years as this region has seen wealth and a deterioration of eating habits, such as fast food."

To cope with this, the GCC's healthcare market is expected to grow from approximately $15 billion (Dh55bn) to $17bn today to $60bn by 2025.

"And that spells the need for huge investment across the entire value chain of healthcare, not just hospitals or primary and tertiary clinics, but dialysis centres, trauma centres and laboratories," said Lodhi.

He added: "Across the entire spectrum we at Abraaj think there is a huge opportunity. We have a dedicated healthcare vertical and are very active in this space."

Abraaj recently entered a major partnership with Turkey's Acibadem Healthcare Services, the largest hospital business in the Middle East. Lodhi said resources to cope with diabetes were so scarce in Saudi Arabia that two jumbo jet planes were leaving everyday loaded with blood samples bound for laboratories in Germany.

Dr Maha Taysir Barakat, consultant endocrinologist, medical and research director at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC) in Abu Dhabi, said: "There has been a staggering increase of Type 2 diabetes in younger people in the UAE. Children as young as 10 are being diagnosed with the disease, many due to obesity coupled with physical inactivity and unhealthy diet.

"We must make moves now to counteract this trend. If we do not, there will be an additional burden on our society, governments and the healthcare system, specifically."

The ICLDC is to create a Centre of Excellence for diabetes with the highest number of physicians than any other similar unit currently in the UAE. Opened in 2006, the hospital now cares for 6,000 patients, who pass through its chain of tests and treatments in a single visit.

The WHO found that the problem of diabetes is even more acute among UAE nationals, with almost a fifth suffering from the disease. These alarmingly high rates are followed by Saudi Arabia (16.7 per cent), Bahrain (15.2 per cent) and Kuwait (14.4 per cent).

Barakat said: "There seems to be a genetic predisposition to the disease among UAE Nationals, but not exclusive in Type 2 diabetes. And statistics show that they have a higher diabetes prevalence than other nationalities within the UAE.

"Overall UAE/GCC nationals have a much higher prevalence of Type 2 diabetes and obesity at unusually high levels relative to the rest of the world," he added.

For the UAE's healthcare sector the problem is further compounded as the segment of people aged more than 65 years in GCC as a whole is growing at 8.7 per cent a year. Typically, at 65 healthcare costs increase five fold.

Many residents also suffer from high blood cholesterol but they are unaware of it because there are no symptoms. High blood cholesterol increases the risk of cardiovascular disease which leads to strokes and heart attacks.

A UAE Ministry of Health study conducted in 2000, found approximately half of the people with diabetes in the UAE were unaware that they were sufferers. Presently, about 19.5 per cent of the UAE population is thought to be living with the disease.

The IDF estimates that the equivalent of 23 million years of life is lost each year to the disability and a much-reduced quality of life caused by diabetes complications.

The investment potential in the local healthcare sector is evident in the exponential growth of the National Health Insurance Company (Daman), the UAE's largest health insurance firm. Daman recently announced it had enrolled its one millionth member and now commands 80 per cent market share in Abu Dhabi.

Since the beginning of operations in mid 2006, Daman has expanded by eight offices around the UAE and has 12,000 members outside the UAE capital.

Last month the insurance firm launched a health awareness programme to alert residents of the increasing risk of diabetes, obesity and hypercholesterolemia through a series of lectures.

This followed a set of United Nations' WHO statistics published on the UAE's growing vulnerability to these afflictions.

Daman's CEO Dr Michael Bitzer said: "Our decision to hold the programme was affected by the statistics published by the WHO on these three diseases affecting the UAE, which were quite alarming. Raising awareness and living healthy lifestyles are vital when it comes to preventing such ailments and we are delighted to be able to play a role in further informing the public of these topics."

Despite the GCC's unparalleled growth as an economic power over recent decades, which when combined totals a GDP of $800bn in 2007, the rapidly changing lifestyles of residents are threatening to destabilise this success.

As the crisis unravels, so will the opportunities for investors circling the local healthcare sector in search of stellar returns.

 

The epidemic

The obesity epidemic engulfing the region is causing as many problems as opportunities.

The UAE's under-resourced healthcare sector is buckling under the pressure of a population where 33 per cent are obese and a fifth suffer from diabetes.

In 2007, the UAE ranked second highest worldwide for diabetes prevalence, followed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

As the hospital, laboratories and clinics cry out for funding, local investors are rubbing their hands at the prospect of establishing a foothold in sure-to-be fruitful market.

Dubai-based Abraaj Capital has been one of the more active investors to step up to the plate.

But the GCC is not alone in its battle to beat the bulge. The WHO predicts there will be 2.3 billion overweight adults in the world by 2015 and more than 700 million of them will be obese.

 

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