Collaboration key to overcoming cultural, social and policy challenges in the Middle East
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: International and regional experts convened at The Economist’s Global Crisis of Obesity Summit in Dubai this week to discuss the need for a monumental shift in the way public and private sector organizations, and the wider society, approach the challenges presented by obesity, and resulting diseases including diabetes.
According to the World Health Organization, one in eight adults are obese globally. While there is greater awareness of the physical, neurological and psychological effects of obesity, consensus among participants at the event was that without collaboration between a diverse group of stakeholders, reducing the number of obesity cases by 2025—a goal set by the United Nations—may not be met.
In a powerful keynote speech delivered at the summit, Chairperson of Dubai Healthcare City Authority HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, wife of HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, acknowledged that obesity is increasingly prevalent across the Middle East, and urged industries to unite in moving from isolated pockets of support to partnership models capable of providing personalized care-giving to those suffering from or at risk of obesity.
“People are not statistics; the burden that is carried by overweight and obese individuals and their families can’t easily be measured,” said HRH Princess Haya, adding that “striking a balance between science and compassion is perhaps the greatest challenge [patients] face today.”
In her address, HRH Princess Haya challenged the audience to reflect on the role that stigmatization plays in feeding the problem of obesity, and asked attendees to draw on the ‘open, curious and compassionate minds’ that brought them to the event, as they strive toward systemic changes. Her remarks also included a call-to-action to ensure rising generations are empowered to make healthier lifestyle choices.
“The importance of instilling healthy habits at an early age can’t be overemphasized. Our youth have the luxury of choice, but we need to guide them to make healthy choices. In doing so, we must not forget that while health is a right, it is also a great privilege that many people around the world do not enjoy. It is up to us, therefore, to treat our health carefully, wisely and proactively,” HRH Princess Haya concluded.
HRH Princess Haya’s keynote speech was followed by a high-level panel discussion on ‘building a holistic response from the public, private and voluntary sectors’. The discussions focused on the ways in which stakeholders can work together to contribute to the fight against obesity and associated diseases, as well as the fact that confronting the obesity epidemic cannot be the sole responsibility of the healthcare sector.
The morning session concluded with two further panel discussions. The first was led by Bollywood actress and healthy living advocate, Zareen Khan, who shared personal insights on the debilitating effects of body shaming, while the second session addressed the need to transform the environments people live in, and how those environments can either increase or decrease an individual’s chances of developing obesity.
In the afternoon, simultaneous panel discussions were held on ‘Winning the Battle of the Bulge’ and ‘Defeating Diabetes’ where participants focused on steps the food and beverage and healthcare industries are taking to address and prevent obesity and diabetes, with the help of policymakers, and the education and civil society sectors.
With healthcare spending to treat diabetes in the Middle East predicted to reach USD$24.7 billion by 2035, up from USD$16.8bn in 2014, panelists highlighted the indirect costs of the disease resulting from reduced productivity at work. Other topics included whether diabetes is being tackled with enough urgency, whether enough is being invested in healthcare and what gains have been made.
The summit was sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and Nestlé Health Science, and brought together 150 eminent key thought leaders and decision makers from government and academia, as well as the pharmaceutical, food and drink and medical devices industries. Speaking about the importance of multi-disciplinary approach, Dr. Ben Wiegand, Head of the Disease Interception Accelerator (DIA), part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, said having a diverse group of stakeholders come together helps foster innovation.
“We are committed to improving the lives of people struggling with obesity and diabetes today, and identifying individuals who may be at-risk of developing such diseases in the future. Due to the global scale and complexity of obesity and diabetes, we believe it is vital to support patients today and accelerate the pace of innovation across the continuum of care to predict and preempt disease. Multi-stakeholder events that bring together academic, government and industry leaders are so important in creating a platform for collaboration and to ensure the health and well-being of future generations,” said Dr. Wiegand.
Commenting on the event, Dr. Maged Iskander, Head of Nestlé Health Science in Middle East, said “Nestlé Health Science already partners with governments, communities, and healthcare entities in the Middle East to combat issues including both obesity and diabetes. We support a number of events and, through scientific and clinical breakthroughs, provide nutritional therapies that advance the therapeutic role of nutritional science as an integral part of health management. Today’s summit has provided a great source of inspiration, with HRH Princess Haya’s speech showing a strong commitment to continuing down a road that the UAE has already embarked on, towards a healthier community.”
With such strong expressions of support from the private sector, the event is expected to galvanize efforts to develop regional strategies that offer a human solution to what was described as a very human and personal problem.
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