THE country's only dedicated childhood obesity treatment programme has seen a 400pc increase in just one year in referrals of children under five.
The youngest child referred to Temple Street Children's University Hospital's W82GO programme was just two.
The programme is a 12-month family-based obesity treatment plan for children and teenagers, which provides families with health, nutrition, self-esteem, family communication and activity guidance.
In the past five years, 312 children aged 18 months to 16 years have been referred Temple Street. All had a body mass index (BMI) greater than 98pc on the Irish growth chart.
Grace O'Malley, senior physiotherapist at the hospital, said in the past year the programme had seen a fourfold increase in the number of under-fives being referred. She attributed the increase to more parents becoming aware of the importance of tackling the issue of obesity and bringing their child to the public health nurse or GP for growth monitoring.
"More clinicians are aware that tackling childhood obesity early is crucial for the prevention of childhood health problems in addition to adult problems later on," she added.
However, services at the hospital are stretched to capacity, with some children waiting up to a year to be seen. At the moment, there are 140 children who are clinically obese on the W82GO waiting list. The programme hasn't received funding from the HSE since 2007.
"At the moment, we don't turn anyone away but we do have a waiting list. We see them as soon as we can, between 10 and 12 months, and it depends on prioritisation," said Ms O'Malley.
The youngest children who may benefit most from intervention early on can be pushed down the waiting list so older teens can be prioritised.
"If there is a 15-year-old who is turning 16 and therefore moving out of paediatrics, they have to be seen before a young child because there is not an adolescent transition service," she said.
Specialists are treating obesity-related diseases never seen before in children and treatment is imperative.
"The problem is when you don't treat now you see a lot of problems, a lot more fractures, orthopaedic problems, a lot more pain. As young as 10 or 11 you'll have kids with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-diabetes, raised insulin and raised blood sugar," said Ms O'Malley.
"If we can treat this now, we can prevent adult disease; but we are also preventing diseases in adolescents that we never saw before."
For children, the parents are gatekeepers, she says. "They can have the greatest impact. But at the same time, the environment they are living in needs to support that and currently it isn't. It's harder to make the healthier choice."