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Pediatrician Dr. Ayisha Kurji (MD). (Submitted photo)

The Kids Are Not All Right, with Ayisha Kurji

Dr. Ayisha Kurji first noticed the uptick in children and teens being admitted to hospital in the spring of 2020. Some had cardiovascular damage. Some had gastrointestinal issues. But it wasn't because of Covid-19.

USask pediatrician Dr. Ayisha Kurji (MD) discusses the relationship between childhood eating disorders and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Instead, she kept seeing children and adolescents hospitalized with eating disorders.

"They were so sick, so medically unwell," said Kurji. "We started to track it."

As familiar routines evaporated and face-to-face interactions vanished after school cancelations, Kurji said across Canada, outpatient referrals for eating disorders shot up 60 per cent, largely driven by an increase in anorexia nervosa.

Kurji is one of the only paediatricians in Saskatchewan who specializes in treating children and teens with eating disorders.

During the pandemic, she said inpatient hospitalizations for eating disorders tripled. The phenomenon is not isolated, with doctors in Canada and internationally observing the same spike, Kurji said.

"In the pandemic where we've seen school closures and things like that, we've also seen more kids with depression, more kids with anxiety, and this eating disorder trend is huge," she said.

Kurji shared red flags for eating disorders, and emphasized the need for parents to keep an eye on children and teens who develop new habits around food and exercise.

"As a pediatrician, as a mom, we need to be putting our kids first," said Kurji.

In this episode, she talks about her path to pediatrics, one that included a bachelor's degree in psychology before she entered medical school at the University of Calgary.  Kurji completed her residency in Saskatchewan, and is now an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Medicine.

Almost two years into the pandemic, she's now compiling her observations on the spike in eating disorders into an article for peer review. 

As Omicron infects a growing number of people, she said it's important to learn from the early days of the pandemic.

"I think we need to be really careful how we approach things like school closures and delays," she said. "Sometimes they might be needed, but we need to keep in mind that that's going to have an effect on our kids and we need to be prepared."

Kurji also said popular culture and social media sites also tend bombard young people with questionable messages about food, body image, and beauty.

"When you're watching together, or if you see something like that, it's a good idea that you say 'let's pause this and let's talk about it," Kurji said. 

She said parents need to actively reframe discussions around outward appearances, in favour of talking about active living, and what a person's body can do.

"Eating disorders really speak to me as my special thing where I feel like I can make a difference," she said. 

Left untreated, she said patients who suffer from anorexia and purging often go on to struggle with food as adults, increasing their risk of death by five per cent each decade.

"Catching things early makes a huge difference," said Kurji.

Further resources are available at The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) and at the Kelty Mental Health resource centre. 

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