The alarmingly poor level of children’s health on the island was highlighted by presenters at the 9th Cyprus Public Health Day conference held at Tepak’s international institute for environmental and public health (CII).
According to paediatric health experts Cyprus, along with Greece, holds the negative lead among countries in Europe for childhood obesity and associated illnesses, attendees heard on Tuesday.
Main speaker Dr Ioannis Manios, from the School of Health Sciences at the Harokopion University of Greece, emphasised that the rise in obesity is of concern as it is a condition with crucial repercussions for children’s development, ranging from mental health issues to academic performance, to life expectancy and adult outcomes.
A reduction of about 2.5 years of quality life expectancy has been noted for overweight children, the expert said.
Dr Michalis Tornaritis, from the Research and Education Institute of Child Health, pointed out that the percentage of children with high cholesterol levels remains high despite a reduction from 45 per cent during 1995-2002, to 30 per cent during 2012-2017.
The vast majority of the island’s children and adolescents consume far from a “Mediterranean diet” and exercise less often than child populations in countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany and Belgium, the expert noted.
The country’s bad record in children’s health does not end here, as Cyprus also has the third highest position in Europe for cases of childhood cancer, according to Dr Loizos Loizou, professor of Paediatrics at the University of Nicosia’s Medical School (UNIC).
The most frequent cases of childhood cancer are leukaemia, lymphomas, epithelial neoplasms (thyroid cancer) and brain – central nervous system tumours, Loizou said.
The expert highlighted the rise in the incidence of thyroid cancer and the fact that Cyprus has one of the highest rates in the world, with a 7.6 per cent annual increase. The professor said research is needed to determine the factors causing the alarming rise and to combat inequalities, as 80 per cent of cancer cases worldwide occur in middle- and low-income countries.
CII associate professor, Dr Konstantinos Makris, referred to the importance of environmental health in the prevention and control of childhood diseases.
Main mortality factors for 10- to 24-year-olds are air pollution, smoking, glucose levels, body mass index and exposure to asbestos, Makris said factors which have not have not changed in Cyprus over the last 10 years.
Systematic exposure to such factors during childhood leads to chronic disease in adulthood and specific degraded hotspots on the island have been documented as leading to poorer health outcomes, Makris said.
Dr Stalo Papoutsou, also from the children’s health research institute, presented the results of a national study on the diet of the Cypriot population, which, among other things, highlighted the short duration of exclusive breastfeeding.
Exposure to endocrine disruptors was another environmental risk factor highlighted by UNIC medical school professor Nikos Skordis, while Dr Stella Michaelidou, president of the committee on environment and child health, noted that 75-90 per cent of childhood cancers are of undetermined aetiology, and 1 in 6 children experience neurodevelopmental disorders.
Paediatrician Charalambos Hadjigeorgiou presented data on eating disorders based on the results of two studies.
The studies revealed an increased tendency, especially among girls, to desire weight loss, and questionnaires to teenagers showed a high percentage with low self-esteem. One in five teens rated their wellbeing as low and this increased their likelihood of developing eating disorders and obesity. Hadjigeorgiou also noted a high internet use and a correlation between time spent online and poor psycho-physical health.
PhD candidate Korina Constantinou presented CII’s new initiative, the Cyprus Children’s Health and Environment Observatory, which aims to systematically assess the health profile and exposure of children aged 6-11 years to various environmental factors.
The study will track around 300 children from all over the island, with annual assessments of their environment and health, using questionnaires, biological samples, water samples, and air quality sensors.
Finally, research results from a pan-European cohort of children taking part in the IDEFICS/I.Family study were addressed by Dr Wolfgang Ahrens, head of Epidemiological Methods and Etiological Research at the Leibniz Institute in Bremen.
Health Minister Popi Kanari, in closing statements expressed the ministry’s continued support for the efforts of the Tepak-based CII institute and its research on environmental and public health issues.