A high number of young male migrant workers from South Asia are developing hypertension, obesity and cardiac problems after adopting the UAE lifestyle especially those who have been in the country for over six years, a study has found.
The first population-based study among migrant workers done in the country also finds that drivers, shopkeepers, salesmen and construction workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh had the highest levels of blood pressure while agriculture workers had the lowest BP levels.
Diabetes was found to be highest in hotel and hospitality industry workers and was attributed to availability of free food, said Syed Mahboob Shah, Associate Professor, Institute of Public Health, College of Medicine and Health Sciences at the United Arab Emirates University.
The Risk Segment
>Drivers, shopkeepers, sales-men and construction workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were found to have the highest levels of blood pressure and obesity levels
> On average, a South Asian was found to suffer from a heart attack at 48 years as compared to an Emirati at 61 years and other Arab nationals at 53 years
> Diabetes was highest in hotel and hospitality industry workers and was attributed to availability of free food
> A switch from whole grains and pulses to more refined sources of carbohydrate along with increased consumption of soft drinks was among the reasons for weight gain
Dr Syed conducted the questionnaire-based study among 1,375 workers (average age of 34 years) in Abu Dhabi between 2012 and 2013. The average monthly income of those surveyed was Dh1,828 and 68 per cent had migrated from rural villages.
The study findings suggest a diminished 'Healthy Migrant Effect' with increased years of residency due to a transition in lifestyle behaviours.
"At least 75 per cent of them were unaware of their health condition because of lack of regular health checks as compared to 99 per cent of Emiratis who are screened for lifestyle diseases," said Dr Shah
As many as 559 Bangladeshis, 433 Indians and 383 Pakistanis and were asked questions related to non-communicable disease (NCDs) in the study that was published in the BioMed Central health journal last year.
It was found that 616 (44 per cent) of those surveyed became overweight within 10 years of their stay in the UAE, and 16 per cent were obese, especially those who were involved in sedentary occupations (75 per cent among drivers, 86.7 per cent among shop keepers and businessmen, 70.6 per cent among tailors).
Hypertension was present in 419 (30 per cent) of the sample and diabetes in 9 per cent of the sub-sample.
"Around 65 per cent of the UAE population is economic migrants from the low and middle income countries of South Asia who have adopted the cultural lifestyle of the high-income host country UAE," explained Dr Shah.
Changes in diet with a substantial increase in overall energy and fat intake due to the accessibility and availability of energy-dense foods and snacks were among the reasons for the increasing health issues. Moreover, a switch from whole grains and pulses to more refined sources of carbohydrate along with increased consumption of soft drinks was also among the top reasons.
"South Asian populations (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal) contribute to the highest proportion of the burden of cardiovascular diseases compared with any other region globally," said Dr Syed.
On an average, a South Asian will suffer from a heart attack at the age of 48 as compared to an Emirati at 61 years and other Arab nationals at 53 years," said the doctor.
"There is an urgent need to develop screening programmes for this group of workers since this is placing burden on the healthcare system," said Dr Shah. "In Canada, every pharmacy offers blood pressure checks ... this can be done easily here, too."
He also recommended inclusion of blood pressure, height and body mass measurements in medical screening tests at the time of obtaining or renewing a residency visa for expatriates living in the UAE.
By Asma Ali Zain