Dubai health guide for expats

Our medical director of Bupa Global, explores some of the health issues particular to the new Dubai resident.

Dubai is one of my favourite places to visit. I love its modernity and constant strive to be the biggest and best at everything it does, whether that be in the recent unveiling of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, or just to watch the exquisite fountain dance next to the Dubai Mall. On my travels as medical director for Bupa Global, I’ve met many people who have made the life changing leap and relocated to Dubai; the city stills attracts people from all corners of the globe to live and thrive in its abundance. Many of the health challenges they face are similar to other expats around the world, others are unique to this irrepressible sheikdom.

A developing health problem

In the last few decades Dubai has risen from the desert to become the cosmopolitan hub of the Middle East. However, this harsh desert environment combined with a booming construction industry has brought with it a sizeable health problem – an increase in respiratory-related illnesses, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Air pollutants from concrete batch plants, demolition, unpaved roads and the surrounding desert are thought to be affecting the lungs and airways of Dubai residents, aggravating respiratory conditions. This situation has prompted the University of Sharjah (with the backing of UAE health authorities) to undertake a comprehensive study examining the rise in respiratory-related illnesses in Dubai.

If you are an expat working in the construction industry, you may be particularly affected by this problem. However, if you live or work in an area where there is heavy construction going on, you may also be at risk. My advice is to exercise common sense, and avoid areas where the air is particularly polluted. You can, for example, check your local weather forecast and air quality index on a daily basis and modify your activities accordingly. On particularly hot days the air quality tends to be poorer; you will naturally try to stay indoors as much as you can, and an air-conditioned environment is luckily the best to minimise the effects. If you have to go outside, try to choose times of the day when the air pollution is lighter, ie first thing in the morning. But most importantly, listen to your body. If you feel symptomatic, for example if you’re tired or are having trouble breathing, stay indoors, rest and take any medicines your doctor has prescribed for your condition.

Feeling the heat

Working in a country with temperatures of up to 50 degrees celcius in the summer can pose serious health hazards. Recent media reports of workers falling ill and dying of heat stroke have brought this reality to light. Heat-related illnesses occur when your body is unable to regulate its temperature. Physical activity in extreme temperatures or exposure to heat you are not used to can cause ailments that are minor (like prickly heat rash and heat cramps), or major, and life-threatening conditions such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

In recent years, the Dubai Municipality has been taking these risks extremely seriously and launched the ‘Safe and Healthy Summer’ campaign. The campaign runs each summer and aims to raise awareness about the dangers of heat-related illness among workers and other people at risk. Activities often take place in work places, shopping malls, bus stations and other public spaces, so look out for them.

Be sensible in the heat. Minimise the amount of heat you are exposed to and stay out of the sun in the middle of the day. Stick to the shade as much as you can and take advantage of air-conditioned or cool areas. Try not to do intense physical activity in high temperatures or under direct sun light. Generally in Dubai, air-conditioned gyms are a much better idea than trying to exercise outside. I’m afraid that the heat cannot be the final excuse for forgetting to take regular exercise.

Relocation depression

An issue that often isn’t discussed in relation to expat health is ‘relocation depression’. Moving away from family and friends, the pressures of a new job, and adapting to a new way of life and culture can be difficult. Relocating abroad is not like being a tourist, although it may feel like it at first, especially in a country like Dubai. Once the excitement and newness of your surroundings has worn off, you may be left feeling unsettled and anxious. For some people this can even develop into a form of depression; it is also well documented that expats tend to have alcohol playing a more significant role in their life than before.

Being prepared and proactive will help stave off any negative feelings. Try to make contacts in Dubai before you move. If you’re already there, join communities, clubs, a gym or classes in your area; the internet has a wealth of useful information. Take care of yourself – eat right, set yourself positive, achievable goals, and keep fit and active. If all else fails, don’t suffer in silence. Ask your employer if they have an occupational health department or access to an employee assistance programme or similar scheme.

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