Remember when we thought we didn't have these kinds of problems with our girls UAE National anorexia levels ‘astonishing’
Doctors are worried about the level of anorexia nervosa among teenage girls after 1.8 per cent of youngsters surveyed in the country’s first study into the illness showed signs of being sufferers.
The survey of 900 girls conducted at Al Ain University found that a relatively high number of 13- to 19-year-olds were anorexic.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists said anorexia affected approximately one per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds in the UK – a figure the authorities there consider to be a major problem. A psychiatrist said the rate of cases in the UAE was “astonishing”, but an inevitable result of a more “global UAE”.
“It really shows that the Government need to do their own studies to get a true picture of problems here,” said Dr Hamdy Moelshy, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the university, who has also worked in the UK and Egypt.
“The first thing we need to do is an awareness campaign regarding different psychiatric disorders, including anorexia, and how dangerous they can be.”
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by extremely low body weight. Sufferers, who include both men and women, have an obsessive fear of gaining weight.
According to the British charity Beat, up to one per cent of young women have anorexia nervosa, making it as common as autism.
The US National Eating Disorders Association said up to 20 million females and one million males struggled with eating disorders such as anorexia and bullemia.
To establish the prevalence in the UAE, the medical students who carried out the study, Reem bin Ali and Maryam Salem al Dahmani, surveyed pupils on their eating habits, body image, weight and height, caloric intake, weighing habits and menstrual cycles. The surveys were distributed in public and private schools in Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Al Ain and Abu Dhabi.
“When we tried to find information on anorexia nervosa we could not find anything,” Miss al Dahmani said. “We decided to do it ourselves as it something which we feel very strongly about and it should not be ignored.”
The students used criteria produced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) by the American Psychiatric Association to work out which of the girls were anorexic.
The four main DSM criteria for anorexia nervosa are refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight (less than 85 per cent of expected weight); an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat even though the person is underweight; self perception that is grossly distorted and weight loss that is not acknowledged; and the absence of at least three consecutive periods.
Both students said the results showed the UAE needed to raise awareness about such illnesses.
“We do not to react to this like we have done with diabetes,” Miss al Dahmani said. “We really want to work on this and do our campaigns to encourage people to learn more and take it seriously.”Their data also showed that the prevalence of anorexia among Emiratis was almost five times as high as it was among expatriates.
Of the 900 questionnaires distributed, 737 were valid. Of the 365 returned by Emiratis, 14 fitted the DSM criteria, compared with three out of 372 expatriates.
According to Dr Moelshy, western influences are partially to blame.
“We have so much influence from other countries, we have the same movies and [the same] messages in the media like in the UK and USA, however there is not any form of understanding about the meaning of the illnesses which are said to be linked to these,” he said, adding that many cases went undiagnosed as the person did not even realise they had a problem.
Dr Essam Emem, a psychiatrist at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, said many of the cases were either undiagnosed or diagnosed when the patient was seeking treatment for something else, usually a physical ailment related to the anorexia.
“Because of the stigma, people are reluctant to admit it is a problem,” he said.
“Even if they are told there is a psychological problem they refuse to see it. Sometimes the patient will be given fluids and food but it doesn’t deal with the cause. Things return to normal when they leave the hospital. This is why more awareness is needed.”
Part of the problem relating to both anorexia and obesity has been put down to a lack of education about the basics of being healthy.
Now health authorities are putting efforts into healthy eating education in schools and providing more facilities for exercise.
“Girls do not understand how to have a healthy diet and that is where the problem starts,” said Dr Ziaul Akhtar, a paediatrician at Cedars Jebel Ali International Hospital.
Dr Akhter said the lack of understanding about health in general caused problems for those unhappy with their weight.
“If a girl wants to lose weight she will just not eat, and that is when the psychiatric problems can develop.”