There seems to be an ever clearer relation between the social habits of the Arab world and a number of malaises climbing to frightening levels among Qatar’s population. In the Emirate, 20% of the population suffers from diabetes according to figures released by the Qatar Diabetes Association (QDA).
Over 215,000 people have been diagnosed as diabetic in Qatar, and the disorder is affecting more and more children and not just adults. The quality of life and daily habits of the Arab world tend to foster the spread of this illness often stemming from obesity, which affects over 40% of the population according to the National Health Strategy 2011-2016.
The Emir’s government is ever more concerned and is trying to hold in check the unhealthy eating habits of Qataris, attempting to force fast food restaurants to write the number of calories on every dish they serve. Obesity, diabetes and hypertension are also the cause of over 500 new cases of kidney problems reported every year by the Hamad Medical Corporation of Doha.
Every year over 7,000 patients are hospitalised in the nephrology ward of the Hamad Medical Hospital, and over 2,500 are on a waiting list for kidney transplants: the figures are significant when taking into consideration the fact that Qatar has an overall population of about 1.5 million inhabitants.
This report seems the direct consequence of the country’s social habits. Sports are a problem more than a form of entertainment. The traditional attire, a long white tunic with the keffiyah for men and the abaya (a long black tunic) for women, make playing almost any sport nearly impossible and obliging a compromise between cultural and religious traditions and the possibility to conduct a healthy life and engage in physical activity.
In a conservative country with the highest rate of mosques per capita in the world, many would opt not give up their traditional habits for a run or a football match. Most people do not spend much time walking in the streets, in part due to the high summer temperatures which make a normal stroll an exhausting effort, and in part because it is considered degrading. Most of the population get around exclusively by car.
In addition to making physical activity difficult, the traditional attire prevents sun exposure and leads to another dysfunction, that of vitamin D deficiency. According to a study by the Hamad Medical Hospital in Doha, 90% of those involved in the study suffered from this deficiency due to a lack of exposure to the sun’s rays. In an interview with the Qatari press, Doctor Mohamed Khanjar of the Hamad Medical Hospital urged the population to expose their faces, calves and hands to the sun for at least 30 minutes per day – being the only parts of the body able to be revealed without giving rise to religious or social problems.
Due to their personal choice or that of their families, Muslim women avoid sports leading to contact with men or in their presence, and so many gyms and sports centres become off-limits. Another obstacle to sports is Ramadan, an entire month set aside for fasting and the avoidance of food and water before sundown.
During Ramadan most of the population sleep during the day, with the iftar beginning at sundown: large feasts at which many end up eating so much they need to be taken to hospital casualty wards, with a record high almost 8,000 cases of indigestion recorded at the Hamad Medical Hospital emergency room solely in the first week of Ramadan 2011.
In this sense the habits and customs of the Arab world foster an increase in the rate of diabetes within a population that is steadily putting on more and more weight and living a sedentary lifestyle. Another traditional practice leading to disease, in this case of a genetic type, are marriages between members of the same family. In Gulf countries marriages are often arranged between families, causing cousins and relatives to marry each other.
These marriages often result in the birth of children with serious genetic disorders, including Down Syndrome. According to the Center for Arab Genomic Studies (CAGS) there are over 250 types of genetic disorders in the United Arab Emirates, the country seeing the fifth highest rate of inter-family marriages, with half being between members of the same family.
The true tragedy linked to this cultural habit are the cases of children with birth defects, In Qatar, about 19,000 children are born every year, and the Paediatric Surgery Department of Doha’s Hamad Medical Corporation carries out about 3,000 paediatric operations every year, including over 200 on children born with serious birth defects.
This is why at Qatar’s First International Paediatric Surgery Congress and the 12th edition of the Pan-Arab Paediatric Surgeons Association Congress there was discussion on the surgical procedures for birth defects, as it is the main problem in the sector.