As GCC countries grapple with the stark realities of rising obesity rates, diabetes and breast cancer, this month’s World Health Day on April 7 will undoubtedly act as a catalyst for conversation and change. From well-fests to record-breaking healthcare initiatives, we look at the women who are promoting better health and wellbeing in the region.

Healthcare Scares In The UAE

Unless you’ve been living under a pile of Fendi Baguettes for the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard about the rising health concerns gripping the Gulf region. From the UAE’s fight against increased diabetes rates to Saudi Arabia’s battle with the rising number of advanced breast cancer cases, improving healthcare is a top concern for decision-makers and medical professionals alike.

Prioritising healthcare is understandable when you look at the numbers. In the UAE, more than 60 per cent of women are obese while 19 per cent of the total population suffers from diabetes, according to the International Diabetes Federation. Crossing over to Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Health has reported that breast cancer accounts for 22 per cent of all new cancers in women, 70 per cent of which are at advanced stages. Qatar is equally invested in improving the overall health of its nation, with diabetes levels set to increase to 29.7 percent by 2035, according to the Qatar Health Report.

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Assisting the UAE’s overweight and under-active is a crusade for Dr Nicole Sirotin, who wants Emiratis and expatriates alike to wake up to the stark realities of obesity and associated illnesses such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

“Obesity is a serious health concern affecting 40 per cent of women in the UAE,” says internal medicine specialist from Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, whose remit not only includes the treatment of common lifestyle-related health issues but also their prevention. Her strategy? Simple. To encourage healthy lifestyle choices among women.

“For women looking to lower their risk of heart disease, healthy lifestyle choices related to exercise and diet are vital,” says the Abu Dhabi-based doctor. “For exercise, two things to work on are creating habits which move your body more in everyday life and planning more dedicated time for the recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week.”

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Diabetes In The UAE

Baton bearers for diabetes prevention – the theme of this year’s World Health Day – are right behind their obesity-fighting contemporaries when it comes to bringing case numbers down.

Considering that International Diabetes Federation data reports there are 37 million diabetics in the region, including 803,900 in the UAE, women such as Dr Farhana Bin Lootah, an internal medicine specialist at Imperial College London Diabetes Centre (ICLDC) have their work cut out.

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“There is international evidence to suggest there is a female predominance in the number of people living with diabetes, with some figures suggesting that female numbers are about 10 per cent higher than for males,” explains Dr Lootah, a regular supporter of the centre’s campaign activity, such as the monthly health education forum. “As part of our work to tackle diabetes, we place a large emphasis on preventing diabetes among all segments of the population [and] we do this through both education and public awareness programmes.”

diabetes, getty

Diabetes is a big problem in the UAE, and those delicious sweets aren’t helping us

Ultimately Dr Lootah, whose 2014 HealthX Talk catapulted ICLDC into the global conversation about human health, says patient empowerment is at the heart of combating diabetes in the UAE, which is why, moving forward, more work needs to be done. “We need to continue to invest in public health awareness campaigns at all levels to ensure the good work which is taking place can be continued. With diabetes, prevention is better than cure.”

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Get Involved

Indeed, how long we live is often dependent on how well we live, which is why governments and medical specialists such as Dr Lootah are paying heed to well-fests – outdoor activities designed to encourage women to pull on their Olympia activewear, roll out their yoga mats and Namaste the day away.

“Imperial College London Diabetes Centre manages an extensive calendar of events each year and in 2015 alone, the centre organised nearly 100 activations,” says the diabetes expert. “We run large public health lifestyle activities and events to raise awareness for diabetes and the simple steps one can take to prevent, manage and even reverse diabetes. Since the launch of our public health awareness campaign in 2007, ‘Diabetes-Knowledge-Action’, the campaign has directly engaged more than 220,000 people.”

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One woman, who has cleverly combined the well-fest concept with a worthy cause, is Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud – founder of social enterprise Alf Khair and founding member of Saudi Arabia’s Zahra Breast Cancer Association.


Drawing Awareness To The Things That Matter

The Saudi royal’s Guinness world record-breaking initiative, 10KSA, saw 8,264 Saudi women gather in Riyadh to form the largest human awareness ribbon to draw attention to breast cancer and the self-examination. Not only did the initiative open up a dialogue and raise awareness but it empowered women to take action.

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“We wanted to create that conversation of, ‘I was inspired to do this at 10KSA’, or ‘I met this person at 10KSA’, or ‘I connected with this concept at 10KSA’,” says Princess Reema, the former CEO of luxury retail corporation Alfa International, of the initiative. “We needed to empower the people we were communicating with to take that next step and action of, ‘this is important, we need to learn about this’.”

In a country where certain diseases are considered embarrassing to address (“It is a pervasive issue here because there are specific body parts that are difficult to talk about – the breast and the prostate”), and where breast is a taboo word (“Which is why we need to normalise that dialogue”), the entrepreneurial thinker sidestepped marketing restrictions imposed on her and delivered her message to the masses through clever marketing and persistence (“Lobbying to get the organisation even named the Breast Cancer Association was an uphill battle but our founders insisted and they got their way”).

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Get Up And Get Outside

The follow-up event to 10KSA saw more than 350 women gather in Riyadh’s Albujairi district for an open-air yoga-fest in conjunction with The Empowerment Hub, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving awareness about women’s health and wellness in the kingdom. The idea here, says the princess, was to encourage Saudi’s female populace to look at the lifestyle changes needed to make disease less prevalent.

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“And that really is to focus on eating well and moving well,” says the royal, who has long been an advocate of better integration of women in her country. “Being physically fit doesn’t equal a competitive sport. Being physically fit is about personal health. We need to awaken in that way and take a lot more personal responsibility for our personal health; to be more engaged with what we’re consuming, what we’re thinking and how we’re moving. I’d love that to be the face of the new Middle Eastern women – the active, dynamic, health-conscious woman,” she concludes.

We couldn’t agree more. 

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Words: Tracey Scott

Images: Getty