Chairman of the Kuwait Red Crescent Society (KRCS) and former Minister of Health Dr Hilal Al Sayer discusses the challenges faced by Kuwait’s changing society and how the KRCS is responding to guarantee goals of societal health, as well as its international operations providing much-needed disaster relief support.
Kuwait is a very advanced country with state-of-the-art health facilities for complicated diseases and is very good at dealing with specific conditions; yet, the Ministry of Health spends over 25% of its budget on consequences of unhealthy lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart conditions, etc. What are the main challenges of the health sector to adopt a modern and broader concept of health?
You touched on a modern medical concept called NCD, Non-Communicable Diseases, which is a medical condition that is non-infectious or non-transmissible. NCDs are referred to as chronic diseases which last for long periods of time and progress slowly. Sometimes, NCDs result in rapid deaths such as those seen in certain diseases, for example autoimmune diseases, heart diseases, stroke, cancers, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts, and others. While sometimes (incorrectly) referred to as synonymous with “chronic diseases”, NCDs are distinguished only by their non-infectious cause, not necessarily by their duration, which require chronic care management as do all diseases that are slow to develop and of long duration.
Unfortunately NCDs are the leading cause of death globally. In 2012 they caused 68% of all deaths (38 million), up from 60% in 2000. About half were under the age 70 and half were women. Risk factors such as a person’s background, lifestyle and environment increase the likelihood of certain NCDs. Every year, at least 5 million people die because of tobacco use and about 2.8 million die from being overweight. High cholesterol accounts for roughly 2.6 million deaths and 7.5 million die because of high blood pressure.
These challenging risks have become an international focus by international health organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and many more that have been focused on NCD health-related topics as a main global health concern. The increasing number of seminars and meetings both regionally and internationally to address this danger mirrors the magnitude of its negative impact on our societies. And since one of the causing reasons for NCDs is that they are mainly due to unhealthy lifestyles makes it a difficult challenge to address without the necessary awareness efforts from medical and non-medical entities, international organizations and most importantly governments. Addressing the increasing health dangers of NCDs requires a national and international stand to elevate the levels of social awareness by regularly adopting new legislations to reverse the negative impacts of unhealthy lifestyles, and also possibly through the enactment of laws by the governments to prohibit unhealthy practices, which are spreading now through prohibiting smoking in public areas, national parks, while driving, and so on.
One of the main diseases within the category of NCDs is diabetes with its prolonged negative impact on many aspects of human health, including impaired blood circulation resulting in damaged blood vessel streaming, causing heart congestions, kidney failures, impaired eyesight, improper limb circulation which could result in amputations, absence of tissue sustainability, and many more adverse effects.
I am a personal victim. My father has had sight problems, two heart attacks, a kidney transplant, and almost amputation of one limb since he was 30. I want to ask you, in terms of all the effort that Dasman does and all the national efforts that are put into place, what would you say is the most important approach that we should take to create that awareness and to promote the work that institutes like Dasman are doing to treat more people who maybe are not getting the correct treatment?
The Dasman Diabetic institute DDI was founded to address the threat brought on by the increasing numbers of diabetic patients in Kuwait, with a goal mission to prevent, control and mitigate the impact of diabetes and related conditions in Kuwait through effective programs of research, training, education, and health promotion, and thereby improve quality of life in the population.
Unfortunately now in Kuwait latest surveys revealed that 1 in every 4 people have diabetes whether type one or two, with an alarming increase in the number of diabetic children. This finding is a major concern due to the serious negative long-term impacts of diabetes, especially in children with acquired type one that entails daily intake of insulin injections.
For all these reasons and many more, the Dasman Diabetic Institute (DDI) has been founded primarily as an advanced research center in 2006 and continued as so until 2009 when an Advisory Board was put together, of which I am a member. Our main goals were establishing new working ethics to meet and comply with international health standards and to implement diabetic control strategies through awareness programs and health aid projects. We worked to set a structure, establish working systems and standards, adopt work strategies to meet our goals, and appointed highly qualified and specialized teams to implement these strategies and see them through. We even set up the headquarters from scratch. This took a lot of effort and dedication to which we applaud all team members, for up until now we have established nearly 33 clinics in different specialties, with a total staff head count of over 300 workers working for DDI.
We have conducted many awareness campaigns, seminars and workshops, both in different schools or other educational hubs and within our training centers in the headquarters, to raise awareness on the dangers of uncontrolled diabetes and means of prevention.
We also established an exercise center within the DDI headquarters to stress on the importance of adopting healthier practices through incorporating regular exercise within the community’s daily habits.
We are currently globally acknowledged as a Canadian-accredited institute after acquiring the gold accreditation award from the Accreditation Canada International’s Qmentum International program (ACI) as an achievement award for our standards and expertise in healthcare quality and patient safety. We are also currently approved by the European Commission. We have ongoing collaborations through different projects and programs with highly ranked universities such as Harvard, Joslin, Dundee, UK and Oxford.
Thanks to all the efforts and the support we have been blessed with during our journey, we have come a long way from 2009 to 2015, from examining only an average of 50 patients a month in 2006 to reaching over 4,000 patients a month by 2015.
What do you think needs more study, and what ideas do you have to attract potential sponsors, partners, and scholars?
One of the main challenges we constantly face is limited funding for our ongoing research programs. We are funded by Kuwait Foundation but the global economic crisis has taken its toll on the medical research industry and minimal revenues are being channeled elsewhere. One of the major drawbacks of the research field is the need for constant funding, since science never waits around for anyone. We are currently exploring possible funding from the Ministry of Health to enable us to broaden the size of our operations and services while digging into new resource mobilization techniques. We believe in the importance of science research and remain true to our original goals, and shall continue in our keenness to assure the need for advanced medical research funding in Kuwait in the future.
NGOs are important in Kuwait. They fill a gap between the implausible for the government and the unprofitable for business, and how these efforts can actually affect the country’s progress. What is the role that NGOs play in Kuwait’s society?
A non-governmental organization (NGO) is neither a part of a government nor a conventional for-profit business.
Usually set up by ordinary citizens, NGOs may be funded by governments, foundations, businesses, or private persons. Some avoid formal funding altogether and are run primarily by volunteers. NGOs are highly diverse groups of organizations engaged in a wide range of activities, and take different forms in different parts of the world. Today in Kuwait we have a diverse pool of NGOs working in all sectors, complementing each other and doubling their efforts through humanitarian initiatives or charitable causes.
The growing number of NGOs operating in Kuwait whether under national or international funding assures the high level of importance of voluntary work, humanitarian aid and social involvement in Kuwait.
Last year Kuwait was named the humanitarian center of the world by the OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), a leading UN humanitarian agency, in recognition for its major humanitarian efforts throughout the years, which is an honor to all NGOs working in Kuwait through which their humanitarian accomplishments and efforts have contributed to this global recognition. We at the Kuwait Red Crescent Society value voluntary work through the adoption of the seven main principles of the International Movement, with which we operate. It is voluntary work and represents a backbone for our activities on both national and international levels.
In terms of that growth, there was a research paper from Kuwait University that said that NGOs are actually being attributed to be leading the progressive movements in Kuwait, meaning NGOs for women are the ones pushing for more rights; NGOs for research and education are pushing for that. What do you think should be done to incentivize the promotion and sponsorship of NGOs in Kuwait that will allow them in turn to increase their work?
I think NGOs in Kuwait are doing an excellent job through their different activities and diverse efforts always working towards achieving and improving their objectives and striving to comply with international standards, all the while complementing the national official authorities. These combined efforts form an NGO pool of expertise to strengthen Kuwait’s humanitarian efforts under the guidance of His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah who was named the Humanitarian Leader by the OCHA last year for his outstanding support for humanitarian efforts in Kuwait and the world. Constant promotion of these humanitarian initiatives for all NGOs in Kuwait should be adopted with the support of media in all its forms due to its influential power in the modern world.
We’re celebrating over 50 years of the Kuwait Red Crescent Society, so congratulations on that! Can you tell me about the key milestones and challenges the organization has had and a little overview of what the KRCS does specifically here in Kuwait?
The Kuwait Red Crescent Society is a leading NGO that provides assistance to the most vulnerable communities in the event of natural or manmade disasters – without discrimination against any human being based on gender, color, race, religion or political and intellectual beliefs – through its multiple aid operations and assistance programs conducted both nationally and internationally.
The KRCS is a voluntary NGO that enjoys an independent decision-making status and has a separate legal entity working as a complimentary organization to the official authorities in Kuwait in the humanitarian field. Its scope of work covers all the governorates of Kuwait.
The KRCS was founded by 18 of its most charitable national figures in 1965, in which the establishment of the Society was legalized during their first meeting after which formal procedures did not last long as the government agreed on its declaration on January 10, 1966. Signing of the Kuwaiti government on the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 has facilitated the joining of the Kuwait Red Crescent Society in the International League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which was later known as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1968.
Currently the KRCS operates through major humanitarian efforts in providing assistance to vulnerable communities with its multiple aid operations conducted throughout the year in countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Philippines, Indonesia, Somalia, Sudan, Bosnia and Serbia, and many more. We also have ongoing major aid operations in Jordan and Lebanon to assist the Syrian refugees fleeing the difficult situation in Syria, as well as non-stop aid assistance to the people of Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank.
Our aid operations as well as our rehabilitation projects and livelihood programs conducted internationally to assist vulnerable communities are millions of dollars’ worth of budget. On the national level KRCS has an internal aid program that is in charge of deploying assistance to the less privileged families in Kuwait through the provision of food parcels, non-food items, hygienic kits, clothing, stationary and school bags, hot meals during the month of Ramadan, and many more programs that label us a key contributor to the charitable work done within Kuwait.
One of our main challenges are limited funding to which we are constantly coming up with new funding mobilization technique in the hope of trying to meet the growing humanitarian needs all over the world to fulfill our moral and ethical obligations towards vulnerable communities in every possible way and continue to assure our keenness in utilizing all our efforts for the major humanitarian pressing matters as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of our Society.
Now going into the latest projects and aid, can you tell us about the efforts in Yemen and the efforts for Nepal?
The recent escalation of events lately both in Yemen and Iraq has been our most recent focus. Under the guidance of His Highness the Amir, the KRCS has immediately formed an urgent relief committee including its own expertise working around the clock in setting a rapid response plan of action for assistance in both countries. As the whole world knows by now Yemen and Iraq are very risky zones to operate within. In Yemen we were faced by a major logistical obstacle preventing us from entering the Yemeni grounds to start provisioning our food and non-food life-saving assistance. We managed to arrange 15,000 food parcels along with 40 tons with immediate medical supplies shipped from Kuwait by sea reaching the port of Aden in coordination with the higher relief commission in Yemen and the King Salman Humanitarian Center. Our mission head was deployed to Djibouti and managed to conduct multiple aid operations for the Yemen refugees in Djibouti and later reached Aden along with the following shipments of aid items for the people of Yemen.
In Iraq we also managed to air cargo 40 tons of immediate medical supplies to Baghdad and neighboring areas and succeeded in distributing 20,000 food parcels in Baghdad and neighboring areas during our delegation’s stay to supervise our operation. Also a delegation was deployed to the north of Iraq, Kurdistan province, and our volunteers were on site to supervise the distribution of supplies in the neighboring area. This was done with the help and cooperation with our Embassies abroad who facilitated our mission under such difficult security threats.
We are currently in the stage of re-assessing the needs in both countries to set a plan for possible future rehabilitation projects, livelihood initiatives, medical care services, and many more objectives to meet.
As for Nepal, we have finalized our needs assessment reports on the magnitude of the earthquake crisis and its devastating impact, and currently looking into provisioning relief food and non-food items for the coming period.
Our teams are working day and night planning, coordinating, strategizing and translating our combined efforts to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable communities anywhere in the world.