Dr Sinead Murphy, a consultant paediatrician who specialises in childhood obesity, has told the Oireachtas committee on children and youth affairs that while measures targeting children’s behaviour works for some overweight young people, bariatric surgery is the only effective treatment for morbidly obese children.
“The problem with this is that there is a little bit of an attitude out there that these children will become obese adults, which indeed they will, and that then they will run into trouble. It’s important for us all to realise that we don’t actually need to wait until then. These children are in trouble now.”
She said this cohort suffer psycho-social issues, fatty liver disease, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and other health complications.
“They have high insulin levels which means they are going to — not may, will — develop type 2 diabetes, they are hypertensive,” said Dr Murphy.
“All of these issues which we traditionally associate with unhealthy adulthood, these children, 80,000 of our children, have those now.
“They may not make it to adulthood unless we do something about it. It’s really critical and we are seeing this all the time, our waiting list is uncontrollable such is the need for some treatment for these children and their families.”
Dr Murphy gave the example of one Cavan boy who she sees who weighs over 23 stone.
“He is 13, he is in first year, he weighs 152 kilos, which is 23 and a half stone. He has a really unhealthy lifestyle, he plays Xbox lots, he has takeaways more than you would think would be healthy,” she said.
“He drinks fizzy drinks, his only social interaction is with his friends on the Xbox, because he is socially isolated otherwise.
“What he says to me, and this, we all know is true, is that’s what all his friends do too, but they don’t weigh 152 kilos. This boy has hyperinsulinism, he has a fatty liver, he has high blood pressure. He’s not going to make it to adulthood unless he gets bariatric surgery which is the only treatment option for a boy like this.
“But he can’t, because we don’t have bariatric surgery available for this boy, not for another, maybe seven years. But I don’t know if he’ll make seven years. That’s to put it in context, to let you see the misery with which these children are suffering.
“We need treatment options for these children and there are two different types. There’s the behavioural model for the children who suffer with mild obesity, or moderate obesity.
“But we really need the bariatric service, the whole service, the surgery and the psychological support before and afterwards for the other children, the 80,000 children who are already in that situation and nothing else will help.”
The Irish Heart Foundation also appeared before the committee. Its head of advocacy, Chris Macey, said junk food sellers have subjected children to the same controversial tactics employed by Cambridge Analytica to target voters in the US presidential election.
“If a small consultancy company virtually nobody had previously heard of potentially influenced the course of a US presidential election and the Brexit referendum using data harvested via Facebook, imagine the extent to which junk food marketers can use digital platforms to manipulate children,” he said.
“Cambridge Analytica attempted to persuade adult voters to exercise their franchise in a particular way over a short period of time. Junk food marketing involves the world’s best marketing brains in the world’s biggest agencies relentlessly targeting children, who we know are way more susceptible to advertising, every single day.”
Mr Macey also said it was harder for some children to take the healthier alternatives to sugary drinks in their schools.
“We’d a study of schools some time ago that showed that a very high proportion of schools had no free drinking water, and yet in many of the same schools it was easier to get, at the time, Coca-Cola from a vending machine in schools than it was free drinking water,” he said.