CHILDREN as young as three are receiving hospital treatment on the NHS for obesity, The Scotsman can reveal.
Almost 200 youngsters have received treatment for one of the gravest health problems facing the country in recent years, amid warnings the problem is worsening.
In a damning example of the scale of the challenge faced by public health authorities, a three-year-old is among those who have recently been admitted due to obesity.
Leading researchers said the number of children being admitted was a “tragedy” that would only increase unless urgent action is taken to address the issue.
They said the figures highlighted a “vicious cycle of obesity” which is not being properly tackled by the Scottish Government or Westminster, and made the case for a “radical rethink” of how the country is dealing with the problem.
The condition can lead in later life to health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis.
The data, released to under Freedom of Information legislation, shows that last year, NHS Highland treated a three-year-old for obesity. Over the past five years, it says it has treated four children “aged four or under”, and 38 children in total. Twenty of them were teenagers at the time they were discharged.
The board said it was not appropriate to provide further information on the treatment the children received, citing confidentiality and data protection.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said at least 18 children under eight and 57 aged between nine and 15 had been dealt with in the same five-year period.
NHS Fife said it had had 32 instances of childhood obesity, plus 11 children admitted with obesity-related conditions.
In Lothian, 32 children were admitted to hospital. There were five with a “primary diagnosis” of obesity admitted in Dumfries and Galloway, while NHS Borders said “less than five” children had been discharged with a diagnosis of obesity.
Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said: “It’s quite remarkable that children so young are being treated. The trend of obese children is going up, and it will continue to go up: it’s a tragedy.
“Although the numbers involved are small at the moment, there will be a far greater problem in the future unless there is a wake-up call.”
Dr Ian Campbell, a Scottish GP and honorary medical director of the Weight Concern charity, suggested that, in some cases, young children may be admitted for genetic hormonal problems or because their parents could be “unaware or unable to provide adequate care”.
He said: “It’s quite shocking that children of this age are being admitted. It highlights the complexity of a problem which is sometimes beyond parental control and which is not easily solvable, even by medics. It’s also about political will to change the environment and legislate against unhealthy practices.”
While health boards did not disclose the treatments they administered, national clinical guidelines state children with serious obesity-related diseases should be referred to hospital or specialist paediatric services.
Orlistat, a drug that blocks the absorption of fat in the body, can be prescribed for severely obese adolescents. The use of surgery is recommended only for adolescents past puberty.
But the health board responses highlight inconsistencies in how obese children are diagnosed and treated.
NHS Lanarkshire, for instance, said it “does not record obesity as a specific condition”, while NHS Ayrshire and Arran has “no record” of admissions and “would not routinely admit a child for treatment of obesity”. Similarly, NHS Tayside said it “does not admit children into hospital for childhood obesity”.
Mr Fry said: “What concerns me most is that doctors are in denial themselves. Parents don’t perceive obesity and need to be informed by the medical profession. The guidelines which exist are woefully lacking and there needs to much more concerted advice.”
Dr Campbell agreed, saying: “If there is unequal practice across different regions, there must be winners and losers, which is unacceptable.”
A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association in Scotland said: “It is of concern that so many young children have required specialist treatment for obesity-related conditions in Scottish hospitals.
“Childhood obesity is a ticking time-bomb which leads to ill-health in adulthood, so it is important that there is an opportunity to manage obesity at the earliest opportunity.”
Official statistics released last month by the Scottish Government showed 14.9 per cent of primary one children were classified as overweight, obese or severely obese in 2011-12.
In an attempt to reduce that figure, ministers set a target of having 14,910 children being offered “healthy weight intervention” between April 2011 and next March – an ambition described as “completely insufficient” by Mr Fry.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Tackling this issue requires engagement and participation right across Scottish society.
“That is why we are investing over £7.5m between 2012 and 2015 on projects to encourage healthy eating.
“We are focusing on community initiatives in deprived areas and early-years, where evidence suggests the greatest impact can be made.”