'Twice as many': hospitals can't handle new wave of girls with eating disorders

'Twice as many': hospitals can't handle new wave of girls with eating disorders
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Belgian hospitals are reporting an enormous influx of children – mostly girls – being admitted with eating disorders, as the number of cases has doubled since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Eating clinics indicate that the primary concerns are children with disorders such as bulimia and especially anorexia. Moreover, clinics are seeing far more girls aged between 12 and 16 than in the past, reports De Morgen.

"Even if all paediatricians help out, we are not able to do all the work," Dr An Bael of the Queen Paola Children's Hospital in Antwerp said on local radio. "There are at least twice as many as before. We urgently need extra helping hands."

While patients are typically aged between 14 and 16 years old – already very young – Bael noted that the age has dropped even further in recent months. "We now see children as young as 10 or 11 sometimes." On top of that, the patients we now see are often in a worse state than previously, she said.

"We have the impression that they are waiting longer to get help from the paediatrician," she explained. "Most have already lost so much weight that their organs are in danger of failing, making it life-threatening."

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This evolution could be explained by the coronavirus pandemic, says Ursula Vanden Eede, coordinator of the eating clinic at the UZ Brussel.

"We have seen many young people who started developing eating disorders during the lockdown," she told De Morgen. "It was a period of isolation during which most of them indicated that they felt bad and had nothing to hold on to."

The fear and uncertainty of the coronavirus period combined with the lack of social contact and control created an ideal breeding ground for the disorders, experts believe.

"Then came a lot of guidelines on healthy eating and exercise. There are boys and girls who follow these rules too closely and have lost themselves in them," Van den Eede said. "They try to restore their self-esteem by obsessively monitoring their calorie intake."

Almost one in five young people at risk

Waiting lists for some clinics are more than four months, but the Paola Children's Hospital does all it can to help patients.

"The frustration is that often we can only treat the physical aspect. For the mental aspect, there is little or no time," Bael said.

The results of a health survey in April 2021 published by the Sciensano national health institute show that the number of people who were identified as 'at risk' of developing an eating disorder increased to 11%, compared to 8% in 2013 and 7% in 2018.

Whether or not someone is considered 'at risk' is determined using the SCOFF questionnaire, an international tool used to screen for eating disorders in primary care.

Individual questions in Sciensano's April 2021 survey, which was completed by people over 18 years old, showed that:

-  8% of the participants indicated that they had lost 6 kg in the last few months,

-  17% indicated that they were afraid of losing control over the quantities they eat,

-  3% indicated that they induce vomiting,

-  4% indicated that others said they were too thin while they themselves have the perception of being too fat,

-  12% indicated that food dominates their lives.

Additionally, Sciensano's analysis showed that more women (13%) are at risk than men (9%) and that the risk of developing an eating disorder decreases with age.

Among participants aged between 18 and 29, almost one in five people (18%) were at risk; this drops to 5% for those older than 65. However, an increase in the percentage of people at risk was found for all age categories, compared to 2013 and 2018.

In a reaction given to De Morgen, Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said that the issue is high on the agenda.

"Since this year, we are annually investing €16 million in youth psychiatry and specialised teams, among other things," he said. "Additionally, the insurance committee's budget proposal provides for extra resources for the care of young people with eating disorders."

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