Manama: A group of journalism students has moved to tackle alarming obesity rates and their continued rise in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) through a website aimed at raising awareness and preventing the epidemic’s further spread.
The site, http://www.qatarsweetepidemic.org , to helpunravel the crisis of diabetes and obesity in Qatar, is run by students in the Northwestern University in Qatar journalism programme.
According to Qatar’s 2011-2016 National Health Strategy, 71 percent of Qatar’s resident population, which includes both Qataris and expatriates, are overweight and 32 percent are obese or morbidly obese.
With a mix of video documentary, investigative articles, audio podcasts and visual stories, the students’ site confronts visitors with the startling figures on obesity and diabetes in Qatar and invites them to examine the societal factors that may be contributing to the rise of these two deadly medical conditions across the Gulf.
“Qatar has the sixth-highest rate of obesity in the world, and in five years between 70 to 75 percent of the [Qatari] population will be obese,” Dr. Ellen Wartella, a professor of communication studies at the university, said.
Obesity also increases the likelihood of a person contracting type-2 diabetes, a disease that the World Health Organization has termed a worldwide “slow-motion catastrophe.”
The International Diabetes Federation reports that 20.2 percent of the adult population in Qatar suffers from type-2 diabetes, whereas only about 8.5 percent of the adult population worldwide is diabetic.
“Diabetes is a dangerous disease. If I do not pay attention, it will cause blindness or problems with my liver, heart or even result in death,” Abdullah Al Kaabi, a Qatari student living with diabetes, said in testimony featured on the site.
According to Dean Everette E. Dennis, quality journalism and communications are at the core of informed discussion on important issues such as public health.
“By applying critical thinking and journalistic skills they have developed at NU-Q, these students have given us an example of how the work they do is already making an impact by encouraging constructive dialog in Qatar,” Everette said.
Experts at the Supreme Council of Health, the Qatar Diabetes Association and Hamad Medical Corporation have contributed to the site through interviews with the NU-Q students.
In a narrated presentation, dieticians from Al Ahli Hospital discuss the reasons for the rising obesity rate among Qatari children and possible solutions to combat it.
A report by students Salima Al Ismaili, Ismaeel Naar and Benazir Al Munir Karim explains why Qatari women are at a higher risk of developing diabetes and obesity than men as a result of cultural traditions and restrictive gender roles.
“I hope that our website will serve as a database and information center for learning about obesity and diabetes,” Elysia Windrum, one of the students involved in the website, said.
Windrum said that while reporting and conducting research for the website, she was surprised to learn that many people who were overweight were unaware that they had type 2 diabetes “because its symptoms tend to develop over a longer period of time.”
Dr. Maher Rashed, a diabetes and intelligence specialist at the Supreme Council of Health, predicts that the number of people in the Gulf living with diabetes is higher than shown in current studies.
Windrum, who is preparing for an internship in New York City at the Fast Company Magazine this spring, said she hoped that after being exposed to the website, people will be moved by the seriousness of diabetes and will check themselves into a clinic to be tested.”
The website and its multimedia content were created by students in the Northwestern journalism course, Advanced Online Storytelling.
“I chose the topic of diabetes and obesity in Qatar so my students could raise awareness about the country’s health crisis and, through their reporting, possibly save lives,” says Christina Paschyn, the course instructor.
Advanced Online Storytelling, a capstone course that journalism students take during their junior year, prepares students for their junior-year public relations or journalism residencies, during which they spend 10 weeks working at a professional news or communication organisation.
Last week, students traveled to Washington D.C., London and other cities for their residencies at The Huffington Post, Vogue and communications firm Brown Lloyd James, among others.
“I believe my students have emerged from this experience much more confident of their reporting skills and ready to impress their residency employers,” Paschyn said. “But more importantly, they have created a reporting product that will help to educate the Qatari public on this important issue.”