Childhood obesity: a critical Maltese health issue

This government believes that identifying problems is not enough, seeking solutions is more important

This statement is not something that has just come to light. It was the heading of an article which appeared in the Journal of the Malta College of Pharmacy Practice in 2007.

Unfortunately nothing was done about it and the situation has deteriorated. This government believes that identifying problems is not enough, seeking solutions is more important. In fact, only this week, we launched an exercise that is meant to survey school children in all schools in Malta and Gozo.

A joint project by the Ministry for Education and Employment, the Ministry for Energy and Health and the Malta Association of Physiotherapists will conduct and supervise this survey to enable prevention and provide the necessary guidance.

During the next scholastic year, the Body Mass Index (BMI) of all students in Malta and Gozo, between the ages of five and 16 will be measured. School bags will also be weighed and the prevalence of low back pain will be assessed by physiotherapists. The weight and height of students will be individually measured during PE lessons. This will then lead to the calculation of students’ BMI.

A taskforce to tackle the rising epidemic of obesity in children is being set up. A total of around 46,000 students in approximately 2,300 classes in all local schools will be weighed and measured to establish their body mass index. Their school bags will also be weighed to see if they are habitually carrying a bigger load than they should and causing damage to their backs.

In State Schools, 25,149 students in 1,417 classes will be undertaking this measurement; another 15,095 students in 622 Church school classes and 5,575 students in 289 classes in Independent schools will complete this exercise. Parents of students in both primary and at secondary level will be sent a ‘consent’ letter before this exercise is carried out.

PE teachers will be trained so as to ensure uniformity of data capture. Data sheets for the recording of pain assessments have also been developed. The collation and analysis of data will be carried out by the Health Department and the Malta Association of Physiotherapists and will be completely anonymised. In fact, approval was sought and granted by the Information and Data Protection Commissioner.

Once this is completed, we will be able to accurately measure even small shifts in BMI trends. The prevalence of back pain in school children and its relation to school bag weight will be carefully studied.

We are proud that Malta is the first country to embark on such a project. We have already embarked on other initiatives to address this ‘overweight’ problem. These include the National Food Consumption Survey and the Lunchbox Campaign. The cooperation between the Education and Health Departments is setting new standards and in fact the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for Health has been invited by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to address international audiences on the promotion and implementation of such joint initiatives.

The WHO regards childhood obesity as one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st century. Obese children and adolescents are at a higher risk of developing various health problems, and are also more likely to become obese adults.

With more than 42 million overweight children around the world, childhood obesity is increasing worldwide. Body mass index (BMI) is acceptable for determining obesity for children two years of age and older. It is determined by the ratio of weight to height. The normal range for BMI in children varies with age and sex.

Childhood obesity can be brought on by a range of factors. We have to have the courage to take certain decisions. As of next September, government schools will only be giving water to children, instead of soft drinks and juices, which provide a large portion of sugar intake in children.

The success of this exercise cannot be measured by the data gathered but by what we can achieve with that data. This rise in the number of overweight children is worrying because it causes health problems and can lead to social problems. Overweight children are very likely to become overweight adults and we are taking the first steps to help them (and us) return to a healthy weight.