A London hospital has set up the United Kingdom's first specialist centre offering extreme weight loss surgery for children and teenagers.
Childhood obesity rates are rising fast in the UK, with latest statistics showing that a third of children aged 10-11 in England suffer from obesity or weight issues.
In Southwark, the south London borough where Britain's first paediatric bariatric (weight-loss) surgery service is located, 40 per cent of secondary school children are classed as obese or overweight.
Ashish Desai, the surgeon who decided to set up the new centre at King's College Hospital to cater for 13- to 18-year-olds, said it was in response to what is becoming an epidemic. So far he has performed drastic weight loss procedures, mostly gastric band operations, on four teenagers.
Increasing numbers of young people in the United Kingdom are having bariatric surgery procedures that are normally carried out on adults. The National Obesity Forum estimates that up to 30 youngsters a year are travelling abroad with their parents for such treatment.
Such is the demand that hospitals in Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham, Oxford, Cardiff and Newcastle are believed to be planning paediatric bariatric centres.
The youngest patient Mr Desai has operated on was a 13-year-old boy suffering from bone problems related to his obesity that meant he had to use a wheelchair.
According to the Indian-born physician, two of the other operations he performed are already proving to be successful.
"Two of the patients who have had long-term follow-ups of two to six months say they are extremely pleased with the results," he said. "They say that their attitude to food has changed completely. And now rather than going for the chips and fried food they go towards the salad."
Mr Desai said surgery can provide a lasting solution for a wide range of obesity-related problems including diabetes, sleep apnoea and bone or liver disorders.
If patients maintain a good diet and exercise regime after having the procedure, they can typically expect to lose between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of their excess body weight.
One of Mr Desai's patients, Jayne (not her real name), had gastric band surgery in February, having an elastic band across the top end of her stomach to restrict the amount of food she can eat before feeling full. At the time of the operation she was 17, weighed 23 stone and had a body mass index (BMI) of 45.
She said: "There are things in my life that mounted up and I used food as my comfort. I tried loads of diets but my weight was a brick wall." In the two months after the operation she lost five stone and dropped four dress sizes.
But Mr Desai warned that weight-loss surgery is by no means a quick-fix solution to shifting the pounds – it is the last resort. He emphasised that any young people who attend his service go through an intensive six-month treatment programme with a dietician, a paediatrician and a psychologist.
After this time patients must still meet strict criteria even to be considered for the surgery, including having a BMI of at least 40 and having reached full puberty. They must further possess the "mental maturity" to understand the implications of the operation. "They should understand this surgery is drastic and will require lifelong commitment and changes in diet and lifestyle," Mr Desai said.
Another important factor is the aftercare the young people receive, with patients attending between 10 and 12 follow-up appointments annually.
However, Mr Desai added: "The main goal that the community and the Government need to work together to achieve is to stop this problem through prevention."