Georgia among worst states for childhood obesity

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March 21, 2013

Too many of the state’s school children are physically unfit, said Georgia Commissioner of Public Health Brenda Fitzgerald.

Only about 16 percent of children tested last year could pass all five parts of a test designed to measure physical fitness, and 20 percent didn’t pass any of the five measures, said Fitzgerald, one of the keynote speakers on Thursday at the University of Georgia College of Public Health’s inaugural State of Public Health Conference.

At some schools, less than 2 percent of students ­passed the aerobic capacity test, which tested whether they could run a mile, she said.

Other tests measured abdominal strength, upper body strength, flexibility, and whether the children were overweight.

More than 40 percent weighed too much, according to body mass index calculations of the ratio between their weight and height.

Only Mississippi among the 50 states has a worse childhood obesity issue than Georgia, she said.

“This is a huge problem,” she said. “We need every single segment of society involved in this.”

Georgia is gearing up to curb childhood obesity problem, but it is a tough issue, she said.

“Arkansas has been doing it for seven years. (Former Arkansas Gov. Mike) Huckaby has lost weight, but the children of the state have not,” she said.

But the new Georgia Department of Public Health has already scored some important victories, said Fitzgerald, appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to lead the health agency.

In 2009, about two-thirds of babies in the state were being delivered before mothers went through the entire 39 weeks of pregnancy.

But since then, the department has gotten the word out about negative consequences; babies delivered early are more likely to suffer health complications, and even in third grade, their academic success on average does not match that of children delivered after a full 39-week pregnancy.

Now, only about 4.5 percent of babies in the state are being delivered before 39 weeks, she said.

The department has also launched a campaign to reduce babies’ fatal sleep accidents, she said.

Using information the department already has, it will be able to improve health in Georgia inexpensively, she said.

“Data makes a difference,” Fitzgerald said.

The department now has more backing from state lawmakers, said Fitzgerald, a physician who admitted to not knowing much about what Georgia’s public health agencies do when Gov. Deal appointed her to lead the department.

The state Legislature keeps cutting funding to the department because the department hasn’t educated lawmakers about what the Department of Public Health does. But that is changing, Fitzgerald said.

“They are beginning to know what we do and what we are,” she said.

The department’s wide duties include maintaining vital records, health promotion, disease prevention, emergency preparedness and response, and emergency medical services.

 

By Lee Shearer, Athens Banner-Herald