Sun, Jun 05, 2005 - Page 7 News List

US government forced to act on obesity

LARGE PROBLEM The CDC sent a team of public health professionals to West Virginia to assess the state's problem with obesity, but the only culprit was found to be poverty

THE GUARDIAN , Washington

A team of federal "disease detectives," normally sent to combat outbreaks of infectious bugs, has been dispatched to West Virginia to chart its frightening obesity epidemic. Epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have never before been deployed in this fashion, and it reflects the growing anxiety about the threat obesity poses to the health of the nation as a whole.

Over two-thirds of American adults are overweight and 30 percent are obese, as are 15 percent of the country's children. The incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure is widespread and rising.

The figures for West Virginia are even worse. A quarter of the state's children are obese. There are no available clinical statistics for the state population as a whole. On the basis of what West Virginians told researchers about 27 percent are obese (with a body mass index of over 30), but the actual figure is thought to be nearer 35 percent. The prevalence of obesity has nearly doubled since 1990. The result is that 10 percent of the population suffer from diabetes, 33 percent have high blood pressure and 28 percent report doing no physical activity over the course of a month.

"We are the highest in the country for several things. For hypertension we're number one, we're number four for diabetes and three for obesity," said John Law, a spokesman for the West Virginia department of health and human services. "We determined we have a lot of people dying and we have a lot of health costs as a result of obesity, so we wanted the CDC to come in and look at this as they might look at an infectious disease."

The health "Swat" team has just spent three weeks taking their clipboards and scales around West Virginian schools, offices and restaurants in an attempt to understand why so many of the state's people, particularly its children, are getting so fat so very fast.

The US' growing epidemic

* The percentage of young overweight people has more than tripled since 1980.

* Some 30 percent of adults, or more than 60 million people, are obese -- one in three women and more than one in four men.

* The percentage of young overweight people has more than tripled since 1980.

* Obesity is responsible for US$100bn in medical costs and 300,000 deaths annually.

* Last year 24 states took steps toward phasing out soda and junk food in schools, following 20 states that already had such bans.

* Seven percent of the US population visits McDonald's each day, and 20 percent-25 percent eat in some kind of fast-food restaurant.

The disease detectives looked to see if there were any pavements along the roads for pedestrians, whether employees were encouraged to take any exercise, and whether bottled water was on offer alongside the sweet fizzy drinks in automatic dispensers in schools. People were asked whether they "were offered at least one or two appealing fruits and vegetables every day," and "would you replace regular sour cream with low-fat sour cream?"

"This is a team of public health professionals from CDC that are dispatched for West Nile virus and for meningitis. But this is the first time we've dispatched a team of disease detectives around the problem of obesity and it was a recognition in one of our states that their obesity problem was very large," said Donna Stroup, a CDC doctor in charge of health promotion.

However, the CDC's director Julie Gerberding said, "CDC doesn't send people into the states. We get invited, and we are just delighted that the health officials in West Virginia appropriately recognized that they had a serious problem with obesity in their state, and they really wanted to do more than just describe it," Gerberding said.

The CDC produced an obesity map of America, confirming that the problem was worst between the coasts. That would not come as a surprise to anyone who has travelled through the American "heartland" where most restaurants are fast-food outlets, and fresh fruit and vegetables can sometimes be hard to find. The figures also make clear that there is still a strong link between obesity and poverty, despite a recent study suggesting wealthy Americans are catching up fast. The three most obese states -- Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia -- are also the poorest.

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