Shirley Alexander...obesity specialist.
Photo: Sahlan Hayes
A SYDNEY hospital has become possibly the first in the world to appoint a doctor dedicated to treating overweight children in an urgent attempt to tackle the nation's obesity epidemic.
The appointment, at The Children's Hospital at Westmead, comes as the number of overweight and obese children surges to more than 1.5 million and health systems struggle to deal with the fallout.
Demand for weight management services at the hospital has increased fivefold in the past three years, forcing staff to turn away many children and put scores more on waiting lists.
The hospital treated 17 morbidly obese children in 2005. This year it predicts it will see at least 90.
"Demand is doubling every year and still we are only seeing those who are at the extreme end because we don't have the resources to see the others," said the new staff specialist, Shirley Alexander.
Her role will involve educating parents about healthy food and exercise options and treating those whose weight is affecting their health.
Overweight teenagers had a higher risk of growing into overweight adults, with an increased chance of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, sleep apnoea and non-alcohol fatty liver disease, Dr Alexander said.
"Obviously we'd rather prevent obesity than treat it so we never have to see these people in a hospital, but this is a start."
The co-chairwoman of the hospital's medical program, Elisabeth Hodson, said staff had been pushing for the new role for about 18 months as it became apparent Sydney was in the grip of an obesity epidemic.
"There is a major lack of understanding in the community about obesity and its effects," Dr Hodson said. "It hasn't been taken seriously as a medical issue and very limited resources have been put into it. There have been a lot of plans at a government level, but little action. This new position will help us tackle it but I still believe we are only hitting the tip of the iceberg."
Childhood obesity was a disaster in NSW and more funding for weight management services was urgently required, the director of clinical operations at Sydney Children's Hospital, Michael Brydon, said yesterday.
"It is amazing that it has got to this stage," Dr Brydon said. "I wish we could get funding to do the same thing because we are seeing a real increase in the number of overweight children, and obesity has a huge impact on cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
"All the improvements that have been made in combating these diseases is being wiped out by obesity."
In the past decade the prevalence of overweight children has almost doubled, and the prevalence of obese children more than tripled, a report in the Medical Journal of Australia says.
The study, by the Sydney obesity expert Professor Louise Baur, found obesity carried more stigma in children than any physical disability, evident across all socio-economic and ethnic groups.
"Issues of social acceptance, athletic competence and physical appearance are well known to obese children and affect their sense of social and psychological wellbeing," the report said.
"Obese children with decreasing self-esteem are more likely to smoke and drink alcohol compared with those whose self-esteem increases or remains the same."
A spokeswoman for The Children's Hospital at Westmead said an audit had found no staff specialists dedicated to overweight children in Europe, Asia, Canada or the Pacific. "There may be someone doing it in the US but we're not sure. It's quite possibly the first in the world."