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Kuwait: Towards a healthy future

By Oxford Business Group While Kuwait’s rapid modernization over the past two decades has seen a rise in life expectancies and a decline in illness rates, the changes in lifestyle associated with rising wealth have created their own set of challenges. In early November the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released its latest human development index …


By Oxford Business Group

While Kuwait’s rapid modernization over the past two decades has seen a rise in life expectancies and a decline in illness rates, the changes in lifestyle associated with rising wealth have created their own set of challenges.

In early November the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released its latest human development index (HDI), a broad-based measure of wellbeing that combines assessments of economic prosperity with life expectancy, health and education levels.

Kuwait ranked a creditable 47th of the 169 countries covered by the report. Between 1980 and 2010 the country’s HDI has increased at an average rate of 0.4 percent annually, rising from 0.675 to 0.771. By comparison, the HDI of Arab nations increased from 0.398 in 1980 to 0.590 in the same period, placing Kuwait well above the regional average.

One factor that helped Kuwait’s climb through the rankings was the overall health of the nation, with the emirate having the longest life expectancy, 78, of any country in the Gulf region. In the report’s section covering perceptions of individual wellbeing and happiness, 89 percent of Kuwaitis were satisfied with their standards of personal health, higher than the global and regional average.

However, the report did highlight areas where Kuwait needs to improve health services, particularly in the ratio of physicians and beds available to the public. In both instances the number was just 18 per 10,000 of the population. While this figure is higher than many other countries in the region, it is below the average for the UNDP’s high human development bracket.

The government and the Ministry of Health are currently striving to increase the number of doctors, nurses and the ratio of beds to the population, through efforts to step up recruitment overseas and train more local medical personnel.

The ministry has also launched a construction program to strengthen health infrastructure, with plans for at least 11 hospitals that will add more than 4000 beds to existing capacity. Apart from recruiting new staff and building new facilities, there has also been an increasing drive to reinforce health awareness through schemes aimed at prevention rather than cure.

Although the country has long since overcome many health problems that affect developing nations – such as malnutrition and water-borne diseases – economic success has seen an increasing number of people suffer from lifestyle-related maladies.

Kuwait, as elsewhere in the GCC, has one of the highest incidences of diabetes in the world, with some 26 percent of the population suffering from the disease. Up to 80 percent of Kuwaitis are classified as overweight or obese, a problem that easily leads to cardiovascular disease and other adverse complications.

Local nutritionists have said the high rates can be put down to inactive lifestyles, a proliferation of so-called junk food and a lack of education in regard to healthy eating habits.

It is difficult to put a figure on the cost to the economy of these illnesses, as loss of productivity has to be taken into account alongside direct health costs. However, with a budget allocation of $3.8 billion for the 2010-2011 financial year, the Ministry of Health is set to take direct aim at addressing the issue.

In an interview with the Al Watan newspaper in mid-September, Dr Ibrahim Abdulhadi, the undersecretary at the ministry, said there would be more emphasis placed on promoting healthy lifestyles alongside improvements in health infrastructure.

Reforms have been proposed that aim to establish an independent authority which deals with the administrative side of the medical and health service under the direct supervision of the cabinet. This would allow the ministry to focus on core functions, such as reducing the incidence of lifestyle-related illnesses, said Abdulhadi. If these reforms are adopted, the ministry will, “be able to focus on providing preventive and medical services as the highest level,” he added.

 

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