A Sleep Lab at Rashid Hospital where patients undergo tests for sleep disorder. Pictures for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: © XPRESS / Zarina Fernandes

Abu Dhabi: The high prevalence of obesity and diabetes among the country's population could be contributing to its large number of traffic fatalities, a leading medical professional warned. A leading physician called on the authority to include traffic victims' health status in the statistics they collect following accidents.

Both these diseases are linked to a sleep disorder that can cause people to become inattentive or fall asleep at the wheel for a microsecond, Dr Michael Oko, a renowned ear, nose and throat (ENT) consultant based in the United Kingdom, who was here on medical conference last week, told Gulf News yesterday.

"Sleep apnoea, as the disorder is known, leads to a large number of traffic fatalities across the world. However, the lack of awareness about this condition means that many patients remain untreated, which threatens both their quality of life and rate of survival," said Oko, who is also director of the Snoring Disorders Centre in Lincolnshire.

Patients with sleep apnoea experience interrupted sleep cycles, as the upper airways of their lungs close from time to time during sleep and stops their breathing, the doctor explained.

As a result of the disturbances, patients awaken several times during the night, often with a feeling of being choked. "They do not get enough rest and feel tired and grumpy in the morning, or wake up with headaches. What is even more worrying is that this lack of proper sleep can cause you to fall asleep inadvertently during the day, which often leads to traffic accidents if it happens when driving," Oko said.

The emirate of Abu Dhabi has one of the world's highest rate of road deaths, according to statistics revealed by the Health Authority Abu Dhabi in 2007.

"Because of a prolonged campaign about the condition and better treatment options available, we have seen the rate of annual traffic fatalities in Lincolnshire fall from 79 to 45 within five years. At least any traffic accidents brought about by this condition can be minimised if more patients seek help," Oko added.

Risk groups

The disorder typically occurs in males above 40 years, and is also seen in post-menopausal women. It is also more prevalent among those who live sedentary lives and are overweight with a body-mass index of over 30.

The doctor explained that many patients are also not aware of the interruptions in their sleep.

"Typically, a spouse or family member notices these interruptions. In my experience, many men who are afflicted are also reluctant to see a specialist, as the lack of awareness about this serious disorder means they do not take the symptoms seriously," he said.

Sleep apnoea itself can also lead to further weight gain in a patient, and worsen their diabetes management. "It is a vicious cycle and people who feel they may have sleep apnoea need to see a doctor urgently," Oko recommended.

Dr Yousuf Al Tigani, a psychiatry specialist at Al Noor Hospital in the capital, said lifestyle changes are integral to ensuring the patient's recovery. "A patient can avail of counselling to help deal with any stress that is leading to the apnoea, and must also work to lose weight and maintain an active lifestyle. Special masks to help breathing during sleep are also useful," he explained.

However, the doctor pointed out that he had only seen one adult patient in his seven years of practice in the capital. "I expect that apnoea occurs rather commonly among the population, but I suppose people are simply not aware of its risks or shy away from seeing psychiatrists. However, it is essential that patients seek medical treatment for this very real disorder," Al Tigani added.