Childhood obesity a public health crisis for W.Va.

Staff - - 02/13/2012
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A group that screens West Virginia children for obesity says the perennial problem shows no sign of abating: About 29 percent still qualify for the label, meaning they're heavier than 95 percent of the national norm for children their age and height.

Public health officials tell The Charleston Gazette ( that's likely to translate to chronic diseases later in life, and more needs to be done now to address the problem.

WVU pediatric cardiologist Bill Neal his team have weighed and measured more than 135,000 kindergarteners and fifth-graders in all 55 counties since 1998.

In 2010-11, they found 29 percent of fifth-graders were obese, 26 percent had high cholesterol and 24 percent had high blood pressure. Many were in the early stages of type 2 diabetes, a condition that can be prevented with exercise and healthy diet.

Some experts are baffled by the lack of concern.

"Why aren't parents in the streets? If that many fifth-graders suddenly developed a deadly condition like bird flu, parents would be standing in courthouses all over the state demanding that something be done," said West Virginia University sports and exercise physiology professor Sam Zizzi.

"It's happening so slowly and invisibly, it doesn't make headlines," he said. "We've gotten used to it, but that doesn't make it any less dangerous."

Obese children are at risk for heart disease, diabetes and other problems, and Jamie Jeffrey said she's seeing too many of them at Charleston Area Medical Center's Women and Children's Hospital.

"We're seeing hundred-pound 3-year-olds who can't walk," she said.

But heavy also appears to be increasingly normal.

Jeffrey and her staff looked at their 9-year-old patients and found 49 percent are either overweight or obese. Many will grow up to suffer deadly conditions, she said, perhaps heart attacks in their 30s and 40s.

"It's ultimately going to lead to them dying younger than we are," she said.

Nidia Henderson, wellness director of the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency, calls childhood obesity a "public health emergency."

When Neal's team first started collecting data, "a lot of people didn't believe the problem was that bad," she said. "Now it's hard not to see it."

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