Bursting at the seams: Obesity in the Middle East
There’s a lot of talk about obesity in the UK. But in the Middle East, the matter has already reached epidemic proportions. Corporate team member Melissa MacEwen writes on the causes, the need for multi-faceted health communications and the opportunity for players to reposition themselves as thought leaders in the field.
FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke recently threw the football calendar into turmoil - suggesting that the 2022 World Cup tournament could be moved from the summer to a window “sometime between November 15 and January 15” (potentially spanning 2022 and 2023), due to Qatar’s punishing climate.
But summer temperatures in the state - which can reach 50°C - are not only posing huge logistical challenges to organisers of the sporting event; they are also affecting a major health crisis in the Middle East: obesity. Startling obesity rates and the link to diabetes as well as a range of other health problems, point to the need for strong corporate and consumer health communications across the region.
One of the first things one realises when touching down in a place like Qatar or Dubai, is that it’s an indoor way of life. Infrastructure in the region has been built to accommodate the sweltering summer heat – meaning that you just don’t get the opportunity to walk long distances outdoors. Nevertheless, it’s not just infrastructural constraints contributing to rates of obesity hitting 34% among men and 45% among women in Qatar.
Obesity and diabetes are cultural and economic issues too. In fact, while reported obesity rates for Qatar are already the highest in the Middle East, averaged figures do not tell the whole story. Obesity rates for the native population (who are generally wealthier than the large number of migrants mainly involved in manual labour) are much higher – overtaking the US to be named the fattest nation on earth. The main contributing factors: a shift to Western diet with higher consumption of sugars and animal fats and a sedentary lifestyle (linked to economic development), compounded by surviving notions from many former subsistence desert communities that fat is a symbol of prosperity. And with 23% of Qatari children now classed as obese, a region that already suffers severely from conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease is set to burst at the seams, putting immense additional pressure on local health infrastructure.
Debate around how to tackle our own national obesity epidemic has recently included calls from the National Obesity Forum to recreate the hard-hitting visuals introduced to cigarette packets in 2008, as part of the anti-tobacco campaign. However, the challenges faced by each country are different, and the multiple aspects influencing the Middle East’s obesity problem demand not only robust and innovative, but multi-faceted and culturally sensitive health communications for the region. It’s a prime opportunity for many players (including big pharma) to reposition themselves as thought leaders in the field, by engaging with medical stakeholders, government, patients, and the wider public.