Journalism students in Qatar confront region’s diabetes and obesity crisis with multimedia site

Doha, Qatar (February 26, 2012):  Alarming obesity rates and their continued rise in the Gulf Cooperation Council have propelled a group of journalism students to take on the issue in a multimedia website aimed at raising awareness and preventing the epidemic’s further spread.

Launched on February 16, www.qatarsweetepidemic.org unravels the crisis of diabetes and obesity in Qatar, and is run by students in the Northwestern University in Qatar journalism program.

Seventy-one percent of Qatar’s resident population, which includes both expats and Qataris, are overweight and 32 percent are obese or morbidly obese, according to the National Health Strategy 2011-2016.  That rate is expected to continue rising.

With a mix of video documentary, investigative articles, audio podcasts and visual stories, www.qatarsweetepidemic.org 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,” warns Dr. Ellen Wartella, the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, in one of the investigative articles included on the site.

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; in comparison, only about 8.5 percent of the adult population worldwide is diabetic.

“Diabetes is a dangerous disease. If I don’t pay attention, it’ll cause blindness or problems with my liver, heart or even result in death,” says Abdulla Al Kaabi, a Qatari student living with diabetes, in testimony featured on the site.

Dean Everette E. Dennis commented that “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.”

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 photo presentation, dieticians from Al Ahli Hospital discuss why the obesity rate is rising among Qatari children and what can be done 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 because 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,” says Elysia Windrum, one of the students behind the website.

While reporting and conducting research for the website, Windrum was surprised to learn that many people who are overweight are unaware that they have type 2 diabetes because its symptoms tend to develop over a longer period of time.

For this reason, 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. “There is a problem in undiagnosed cases in the GCC region. [Statistics here only report] diagnosed cases, this means the figures are [actually] doubled,” Rashed told the website creators.

“I would like to think that after being exposed to our website, people will be moved by the seriousness of diabetes and will check themselves into a clinic to be tested,” added Windrum, who is preparing for an internship in New York City at the Fast Company Magazine this spring.

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 is a capstone course that journalism students take during their junior year.

The course prepares students for their junior-year public relations or journalism residencies, during which they spend 10 weeks working at a professional news or communication organization. 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 says. “But more importantly, they have created a reporting product that will help to educate the Qatari public on this important issue.”