THE number of North-East patients having weight-loss surgery has risen by 34 per cent in a year, according to figures.

The NHS paid for 129 obese patients from the region to undergo gastric bypass surgery in 2005-6.

Last year, that figure rose to 174, an increase of 45 cases.

It reflected significant increases in weight-loss surgery paid for by the NHS across England.

Surgeons in Hull carried out more gastric bypass operations than any other centre - 207 in 2006-7 compared to 115 in the 12 previous months.

The recently established bariatric surgery unit at Sunderland Royal Hospital is also one of the most active centres in the country.

Peter Small, the specialist surgeon who set up the unit, said: "The demand from the whole region is going through the roof.

"In the past, it has been funding that has been the issue. Now we are beginning to see a release of funds."

Mr Small said the number of weight-loss operations performed at Sunderland had increased steeply in the past three years.

In 2005-6 66 patients were operated on. That rose to 103 in 2006-7 and 171 in 2007-8.

Mr Small said: "We have had so many referrals, roughly one a day, that we have had to put on extra clinics in the evening.

"We had 27 more patients attending a group session on Wednesday night."

He said that since April 1, he and colleague Shlok Balupuri have installed 20 gastric bands and performed six gastric bypasses.

Gastric bypass surgery costs the NHS about £8,000, while gastric banding costs about £5,000.

Strengthened beds and large chairs designed to bear the weight of very obese patients arrived at the hospital last month.

A new operating theatre featuring a super-sized table is due to be installed in August.

Surgeons at North Tyneside District Hospital recently began performing bariatric surgery.

Dr Stephen Singleton, regional director of public health, said: "It is essential that we take an integrated approach to tackling obesity and make sure that the most appropriate support is provided in the right place and at the right time.

"Surgery can be needed, often as a last resort, for very obese people, and services are developing to meet this need, but operations are a very small part of tackling obesity overall."