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Arab Genomic Studies
A healthy outlook: The UAE is fast transforming itself into a top-notch healthcare destination
15 Jan 2005

For a young country that started off with rudimentary healthcare, the UAE has made significant progress to attain world-class infrastructure in the health sector. According to the recently released UN Human Development Report for 2004, the UAE ranks 4th among the Arab nations, and 49th among the 177 member countries in terms of human development.

The report shows the life expectancy of people in the UAE in the past decade has increased by more than 12 years — rising from 62.2 years in 1970-’75 to 74.6 years in 2002. With 98 per cent one-year-olds fully immunised against tuberculosis and 94 per cent one-year-olds fully immunised against measles, there has been a drastic decline in the under-five mortality rate. In 1960, the UAE had one of the worst child mortality records in the world, standing as high as 223 per 1,000. However, by 2002, the under-five mortality rate (U5MR) in the country sharply declined to 9 per 1,000, catapulting UAE’s health status close to that of the developed nations, such as the United States and Britain. Similarly, endemic diseases, as well as malaria, have been virtually eradicated from the country.

It was the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s vision of attaining the global objective of health for all that led to the adoption of comprehensive health programmes to meet the needs of the UAE nationals. Today, according to the latest UN report, 95-100 per cent of the UAE population has sustainable access to affordable essential medicines. It is difficult to imagine that just a few decades ago, people living in the remote interiors had no access to even the most basic medical care and were dependent on rather primitive traditional remedies for cure.

As a modern welfare state, the UAE continues to invest in health and education as an integral part of national development, setting a striking example of how judicious allocation of resources can bring about an extraordinary growth of the country’s health sector. The budget allocation for the health sector remains one of the highest in the region. The UAE invests an average Dh1.7 billion a year in its health sector. Currently, the UAE has a comprehensive government-funded health service and a budding private health sector. While the public health expenditure stands at 2.6 per cent of the GDP, in the private sector it is only 0.8 per cent.

The number of government hospitals across the country has increased from just 7 in 1971 to 31 by 2001, with several new hospital projects already completed or nearing completion. This year, 17 new hospitals and 25 new primary healthcare centres will be operational. There are massive expansion plans to double the bed capacity in public hospitals over the next 10 years to achieve a target of one for every 300 people.

The UAE was one of the first countries to introduce Primary Health Centres (PHC) in 1984, after signing the Alma Ata declaration. The number of PHCs have steadily increased over the years, and currently, the focus is on setting up more PHCs in rural areas to make up for the fewer health centres in the remote interiors. Similarly, mother care centres have been established far and wide for providing antenatal care, vaccination, and nutritional education, for newborns and mothers. In a major move to widen immunisation and prevention against epidemic diseases, nine preventive medicine centres have been established throughout the country. Hundreds of school clinics have been set up under the school health programme. According to a latest announcement, all national and expatriate students can now receive free treatment in the UAE Government hospital and clinics regardless of whether they have health cards or insurance.

Equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and run by highly qualified medical professionals, the public hospitals provide high-quality medical care to both nationals and expatriates. Apart from several general hospitals, there are hospitals providing specialised healthcare; for instance, Al Wasl Hospital in Dubai mainly specialises in obstetrics, gynaecology, and paediatrics, and its subdivision Genetic and Thalassemia Centre offers treatment and genetic counselling to patients with various inherited disorders of haemoglobin, including thalassemia. Al Wasl Hospital premises also include the Centre for Arab Genomic Studies (CAGS), which was recently launched for establishing a database of genetic diseases prevalent in the Arab countries...