A childhood obesity epidemic is sweeping across Europe. Switzerland has been held up as a good example of how to keep the problem under control. But while progress is being made in prevention, experts warn that treatment is failing to reach families in need. “To lose weight and to be able to go to the swimming pool again without people laughing at me.” That’s the wish of 13-year-old Volkan.
Like many other boys of his age he likes football. But unlike the majority of his peers, Volkan is obese and needs support to have a chance to live a healthy life.
At a fortnightly group therapy session in St Gallen children’s hospital in eastern Switzerland, Volkan listens to a nutritionist talk about healthy eating. After a brief lesson on the food pyramid, he is given the task of preparing a carrot salad for the evening meal which the children, their parents and the therapists will eat together.
While the children are in the kitchen, their mothers are taken through their paces by the sports therapist. The format varies every week, with sessions provided by experts in physical activity, nutrition and psychology. “Often it is the case that the whole family or at least one of the parents is also overweight. It is important for the parents to take on some responsibility in this area.”
A World Health Organization (WHO) report released on February 25 warned of “alarming” rates of overweight children in Europe, and went so far as to call it an “epidemic”. “Being overweight is so common that it risks becoming the new norm,” a statement accompanying the report read. The report’s country profiles paint a bleak picture of nutrition, obesity and physical inactivity in most of the 53 countries surveyed in the European region based on 2009 figures. In Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain at least 30% of 11-year-olds self-reported as overweight, while the rate in Switzerland was 11%.
The most recent Swiss figures are less rosy but they do show that the combined rate of overweight and obese children stabilised between 1999 and 2012 to reach 18.61%, a total of almost 236,000 children. Some 120,000 of these children would benefit from therapy to reduce the risk of co-morbidity (related illnesses) but unless they visit their doctors with weight-related health problems, the majority of these children are not receiving any kind of intervention or therapy.
The impact of obesity on quality of life cannot be overestimated. Of the 1,251 children who took part in KIDSSTEP, a group therapy programme in place across the country, 45% suffered from mental disorders and 68% had orthopaedic problems at the beginning of the one-year programme. Two years later the children’s scores for mental health, quality of life and eating disorders had considerably improved.
Without intervention, a child who is obese at the age of 10 to 14 has an 80% chance of reaching adulthood obese, with the risk of developing multiple diseases. So is Switzerland failing its overweight children in not getting them the right help?
Diabetologist Dagmar l’Allemand of the umbrella association for childhood and youth obesity, akj, believes the system is not reaching those in need.
“In Switzerland we now have a network of therapists and a quality control system and evaluation process but nobody is interested in financing it and supporting the network of obesity centres and some have closed down.”
Making lifestyle changes is a very difficult task, as can be seen from smoking and alcohol dependency, L’Allemand, added.
“The problem is you are in an environment where everything acts against overcoming your addiction. You have advertising, you have car use, all the games, television, so the surroundings are toxic for those families.”
“It’s very difficult for one doctor to fight against all this. Therefore it’s very important that intervention take place early so that the children learn how to live in a healthy way,” she added.
On the prevention side, Switzerland, along with France, the Netherlands and some Scandinavian countries, has managed to keep the epidemic at a stable level. Swiss childhood obesity levels have not risen for more than a decade.
Info from: Clare O’Dea, swissinfo.ch