Abu Dhabi: An increase in the reported number of cases of achalasia, a rare swallowing disease, has doctors at a leading multispeciality hospital in the capital quite concerned.

In a statement sent on Thursday, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi announced that it has seen a marked increase in the number of patients with the condition since they started offering a non-invasive procedure to treat it.

Achalasia occurs when nerves in the oesophagus, the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach, become damaged. As a result, the oesophagus loses the ability to squeeze food down, and the muscular valve between the oesophagus and stomach doesn’t fully relax, making it difficult for food to pass into the stomach.

Surgeons from Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi say they have already treated eleven cases of achalasia in the past two-and-a-half years, nine among Emiratis. The patients underwent a non-invasive endoscopic procedure known as POEM, which uses an endoscope or flexible tube to examine the surface of the oesophagus and make a cut in the outer muscle of the oesophagus in order to relax it.

“Achalasia is a rare condition. Far less than one per cent of people around the world are affected by it and not everyone is a candidate for POEM so, for the size of the population, the number seems high in the UAE,” said Dr Matthew Kroh, chief of the Digestive Disease Institute at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.

“I don’t think anyone truly knows how high the incidence of achalasia is here. I think that’s true for many diseases, especially the rare ones. We’re looking at the potential for hospitals to pool their research on the issue to fully understand how widespread the condition is,” he added.

The aim is to find out whether the incidence of achalasia is higher in the UAE than the global average.

Currently there are only a select number of centres in the United States, Asia and Europe offering this less-invasive POEM approach to treating swallowing disorders. The technique originated in Japan and it has been performed in the United States for the past few years.

“Now that we’ve started to do these types of procedures, patients are seeking out the therapy because they (earlier) didn’t realise it existed … Knowing that these procedures are now available in the country and that people no longer have to travel abroad is starting to bring more people here, which is providing a more comprehensive picture of the disease,” Dr Kroh said.