Abu Dhabi: Despite the availability of sunshine in the UAE, many residents have a high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency, doctors and researchers heard at a conference held on Saturday in Abu Dhabi.

Figures show 78 per cent of the UAE population has vitamin D deficiency, highly prevalent in Emirati women, studies released at the third international conference on vitamin D deficiency show.

“Vitamin D is an important building block for human health and is mainly produced in the skin by exposure to sunlight. However, there is a high percentage of vitamin D deficiency in the UAE,” Dr Afrozul Haq, senior clinical scientist and head of referral services at Shaikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC) in the capital, told Gulf News.

“Ninety per cent of vitamin D is normally obtained from direct exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, but this is not practicable in the UAE as a result of people’s lifestyle, indoor work, clothing habits due to social norms, and the absence of a clear fortification policy to ensure sufficient vitamin D levels in all products,” Dr Haq, international consultant and adviser for vitamin D research, said.

“There should be specific guidelines from the government and the municipality to fortify products,” he added.

Vitamin D plays a major role in bone metabolism disorders. Recent studies have linked vitamin D deficiency with many other diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. An estimated one billion people suffer from vitamin D deficiency worldwide.

Researchers at Dubai Hospital found that more than 80 per cent of Dubai residents do not get enough vitamin D, despite the year-round sunlight, according to the largest study of its kind ever carried out in the UAE.

“Sufficient sunlight exposure is essential for maintaining adequate vitamin D levels. Every person should get exposed to the sun three times per week for about 15-20 minutes between 11am and 2pm,” Dr Haq said.

When asked if sun creams can block vitamin D, he answered: “Sun creams and umbrellas are prohibited, as they prevent our skin from producing vitamin D.”

Laboratory test results are very important to evaluate, treat and prevent vitamin D deficiency in patients at high risk.

“One cannot know if one has low vitamin D levels without a vitamin D total blood test. It is a silent epidemic. However, the Roche Elecsys Vitamin D Total Assay can easily diagnose deficiency in vitamin D, as it measures both vitamin D2 and D3, which are important for physicians who have patients taking different forms of vitamin D supplements,” Dr Haq said.

According to the Vitamin D Council, more children with autism are born during Spring. March is the time of the lowest vitamin D levels in northern mid-latitudes. These areas are further away from the sun and get less light. This corresponds to brain damage around the sixth month of pregnancy.

“We are conducting a huge awareness campaign about the importance of vitamin D. The campaign, which will kick off very soon, will provide the public with basic information and answer their concerns such as what is vitamin D, what are the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency, and how to get the vitamin D the body needs,” Dr Haq added.