Vitamin D should be added to milk sold in supermarkets to help tackle a nationwide deficiency, according to doctors.
The UAE has one of the highest levels of vitamin D deficiency in the world – about 60 per cent in men and 65 per cent in women.
Recent research has shown that vitamin D deficiency can lead to an increased risk of developing Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
It has also been linked to osteoporosis, osteomalacia and rickets as well as cancer, hypertension, dementia, arthritis, tooth decay and cardiovascular diseases.
“Name almost any disease and you’ll find it’s connected to vitamin D deficiency,” said Dr Afrozul Haq, a senior clinical scientist at the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Institute at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.
He said all milk products should be fortified as part of a Government policy as the country is “suffering more than in other places”.
In Britain and the United States, regulations are already in place that fortify milk, orange juice, yogurt, cereals and margarine with the vitamin.
People normally get 10 per cent of their recommended intake from foods such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and milk.
The other 90 per cent comes from exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
Dr Haq recommends 10 minutes of “sensible” sun exposure between 10am and 2pm, three times a week. But many people in the UAE avoid the sun due to concerns about skin cancer and cultural sensitivities.
“Even though we have sun throughout the year, people are not exposing themselves to it enough,” said Dr Haq, who will publish his final study on vitamin D in September.
Mai Alaa, 27, an Egyptian receptionist who lives in Abu Dhabi, said she avoids the sun because of acne, “so I don’t go outside”.
Emirati Aisha Mohammed, 33, said she is “never” in the sun because she is “scared of everything it can do to my skin”, including cancer and making her skin “too dark”.
Tarek Abdul Hadi Abdul Azeem, a doctor of internal medicine at Al Noor Hospital in the capital, said the health authorities should roll out a screening programme to test people because the condition is “non-symptomatic”.
“Vitamin D deficiency is subclinical, so people who look normal and have no diseases can have it without knowing,” he said. “Screening programmes are the only way to deal with it.”
A low blood level of the vitamin has also been linked to depression.
But not everyone agrees that adding the vitamin to food is the solution.
Justin Thomas, a psychology professor at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University, said the problem with relying on vitamin D supplementation, such as fortifying food products, is that the exact recommended daily allowance (RDA) “has not been resolved”. He added that he was “not a big fan of supplements”.
“No one knows exactly how much orally you should get,” he said.
The US Institute of Medicine’s RDA for vitamin D is 600IU (international units), but the exact dosage varies depending on age, weight and skin colour.
According to Neil Fell, a family physician at the Dubai London Clinic, scientific information about the vitamin is “still vague”.
He said a controlled trial on vitamin D had never been conducted because there was “no money in it”.
“It’s a relatively cheap vitamin and to do the study would be so complex, especially with such vague symptoms,” said Mr Fell.
But a study carried out by Prof Thomas and Dr Haq in 2011 to test the vitamin D levels in 197 female undergraduate students at Zayed University found that 82 per cent were either severely deficient or deficient.
The report also showed a correlation between depressive symptoms and students’ exposure to the sun.
“We found seasonable variation in depressive symptoms, which went higher and lower at different times of the year,” said Prof Thomas. Symptoms were “significantly higher” during summer.
Yousef Abouallaban, the medical director at the American Centre for Psychiatry & Neurology, said checking patients for vitamin D deficiency was a “new area which we have not paid enough attention to in the past”.
“I’m not aware of any psychiatrist who tests for vitamin D when they check for depression,” said Dr Abouallaban. He has only started testing in the past few weeks.
A spokeswoman from the Dubai Health Authority said general practitioners in primary health care clinics “advocate periodical checking of blood sugar, pressure and other such tests, including vitamin D”.