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Health | Opinion
Kim Teehee: Combating youth obesity in Indian Country

"In his address on the State of the Union, President Obama announced that First Lady Michelle Obama would be taking the lead in the Administration’s efforts “to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity.” Two weeks later, on February 9, the First Lady unveiled a nationwide campaign – Let’s Move! – to fight the epidemic and improve the health of children. An integral part of the First Lady’s campaign will be to work with American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities, where childhood obesity rates are particularly high.

While nearly one third of children in the United States are overweight or obese – a rate that has tripled in adolescents and more than doubled in younger children since 1980 – the overweight/obesity rate is even higher among AI/AN children, approaching 50%. This figure is particularly alarming given studies showing that obese children have a very high risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other associated health problems such as hypertension and heart disease later in life. Although once non-existent in youth, type 2 diabetes is increasingly being diagnosed in children, and more than 75% of the young people that have it are obese. These recent findings make the fight against childhood obesity all the more urgent because individuals that acquire type 2 diabetes as children are more likely to develop serious diabetes-related complications as adults during the years that ordinarily would be the most productive of their lives.

In support of the First Lady’s campaign against childhood obesity, on February 9, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum establishing an inter-agency task force “to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation through a comprehensive approach that builds on effective strategies, engages families and communities, and mobilizes both public and private sector resources.” The Task Force will develop a national action plan that maximizes federal resources and sets concrete benchmarks toward the First Lady’s national goal. In doing so, the Task Force will reach out to tribal authorities to ensure that childhood obesity solutions will be effective in AI/AN communities. This outreach is consistent with the Administration’s commitment to tribal consultation and will further strengthen relationships developed at the recent White House Tribal Nations Conference and at agency listening sessions.

In addition to the First Lady’s initiative and the creation of the Task Force, the President’s FY 2011 Budget request for the Indian Health Service (IHS) includes $1.5 million for preventing and treating childhood obesity in AI/AN communities. $1.25 million of this would go to pilot test and evaluate an intervention by pediatricians and primary care teams in medical office and school-based health center settings to promote early identification and treatment of childhood obesity through a systematic overweight screening process, in-depth medical assessments, counseling, appropriate follow-ups and referrals, patient education, and staff training. Up to 25 sites would be selected for participation, and lessons learned would be disseminated to other IHS, tribal, and urban Indian health programs. The remaining $250,000 would be used to create the Indian Health System Healthy Weight for Life Workgroup to facilitate marketing, implementation and evaluation of the Healthy Weight for Life Strategy, a document that provides individuals, parents, schools, tribal organizations, Indian health care delivery system providers, and IHS leadership and staff with guidance for taking action to promote healthy weight among AI/AN people."

Get the Story:
Kimberly Teehee: Combating Childhood Obesity in Indian Country (Let's Move 3/9)

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Interior part of White House child obesity task force (02/10)