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Rise of the obesity epidemic ... and it's costing us €1bn a year


Dr Donal O'Shea, St Vincents Hospital Pix Ronan Lang/Feature File

Dr Donal O'Shea, St Vincents Hospital Pix Ronan Lang/Feature File


Dr Donal O'Shea, St Vincents Hospital Pix Ronan Lang/Feature File

CHILDHOOD obesity is a ticking timebomb for this country and major investment is required to to halt its spread.

Obesity is costing the economy over €1bn a year, and that figure will increase.

The problem affects some 300,000 children – one in four – many whom are running the risk of being heavy adults.

Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of human health and nutrition at Safefood (the Food Safety Promotion Board) said that, while parents may know there is a problem with obesity in society, they often can't recognise it in their own child.

A survey done by Safefood found that 54pc of parents of overweight primary school children thought their children's weight was "about right for their height".

She said that they don't see it, because one in four at the creche or pre-school will be overweight, so "the weight is seen as reasonable".

"Unfortunately, the problem tracks into adulthood. Most overweight and obese adults had weight issues as children."

However, parents who do require help for their children can face a lack of accessible services.

Some 73pc cent of the country does not have access to a childhood obesity prevention programme for children at risk of becoming obese.

Meanwhile, Temple Street is the only children's hospital with an intervention programme – W82GO – for obese children.

Team member Grace O'Malley, who is a chartered physiotherapist in paediatrics, assesses children when they begin the programme.

She said young children can have difficulty reaching milestones.

"They can be slow to walk because of excess weight," she said.

"We haven't seen that many, but we have seen a couple of kids aged 18 months to two years who had delayed walking.

"It is often easy to sort out. For instance, night feeding that has gone on for longer than it should.

"It's similar in other European countries," she said.

"A lot of problems can be identified and managed."

Members of the W82GO team will appear before an Oireachtas committee next month.

The successful Temple Street treatment costs €600 per year per child, and reduces the likelihood of associated childhood disorders.

However, without treatment, the State can end up paying €5,000 per child in treating the medical problems associated with obesity.

Its new statistics show:

* 400 children have been seen to date on the programme aged between just 18 months and 16 years;

* All the children were morbidly obese, with symptoms including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

* It gets five referrals a day and the waiting list to be assessed for suitability for the programme is now a year.

Meanwhile, consultant endocrinologist Professor Donal O'Shea, who treats adult patients, says: "If you are obese as a kid, you have an 82pc chance of being obese as an adult."

"The main issue is prevention, prevention, prevention," he said.

When it comes to our children, "25pc of children drink fizzy drinks on a daily basis. That is massive," he said.

Professor O'Shea works at the adult weight clinic at St Columcille's Hospital in Loughlinstown. He said: "There are now 1,100 people waiting to be seen.

"The list is getting longer, and the patients being referred to us are getting younger.

"We are able to see some 250 new patients a year.

"The average age being referred to us now is 43.

"It was 45 a few years ago, so it has come down by two years."

However, they also see people in their late teens and early twenties with significant weight problems.

He said that five people died while on the waiting list for gastric bypass surgery in the past eight months at St Columcille's.

Meanwhile, Safefood supports a measure that sees the catering business providing customers with calorie information on menus, which would help parents .

However many hotels and restaurants haven't had much of an appetite for it because of the cost implications.

Dr Foley-Nolan said: "Work is being done to devise a calorie calculator for businesses."