Prevention and partnerships are the keys to improving health and reducing chronic disease in the United States

Prevention and partnerships are the keys to improving health and reducing chronic disease in the United States and throughout the Americas, a Pan American Health Organization official said today.

In the keynote address at the Steps to a Healthier U.S. summit here, Dr. Joxel Garcia, PAHO’s deputy director, said, “The trends of obesity and overweight are increasing very significantly and present a grave health risk for our hemisphere.” He said it has become “an epidemic of obesity and overweight, with 60 percent of the population currently overweight, and this number is rising.”

Garcia said, “We need strategies to reduce chronic disease through partnerships between the governments, the private sector, and communities all over the Americas. We have problems of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer that in many cases can be prevented.”

“We have to move away from the “NO” approach to improving health, like saying don’t smoke, don’t drink, or don’t do that. We have to give people healthy choices and make them easy choices and get away from the paternalistic approach of saying no,” Garcia said.

“We are making a call for action to make the population healthier, to reduce obesity through increased physical activity, and to make healthy choices the easy choices,” Garcia told the 1,000 participants in the summit, which brings together policymakers and other officials to support programs that foster healthy behaviors and prevent disease.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson opened the health summit here yesterday, announcing a blueprint for action with steps to improve the overall health of Americas. “Much of the chronic disease burden is preventable,” Thompson said. “By engaging individuals, families, health care providers and professionals, we can attack this growing epidemic.”

Garcia cited figures showing that overweight prevalence is high in many Latin American countries, where recreational physical activity is often limited to people with high incomes, partially because urban environments often are not conducive to safe exercise and activity, especially for women.

Nutrition is a key factor and is often getting worse in many countries, he said, as people eat more energy-rich and fatty foods, sugared drinks, and less fruits and vegetables. In Brazil, for example, fruit consumption fell 80 percent from 1962 to 1988, while consumption of vegetable oils rose 100 percent, Garcia said.

To be effective, health interventions must take place in schools, worksites, health centers, and homes, he said, and improving the environment is a key to changing behavior.

The two-day health summit is part of the Healthier U.S. initiative launched by President George W. Bush, Thompson said, to “help Americans live longer, better and healthier lives.

PAHO was established in 1902 and is the world’s oldest public health organization. PAHO works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and the quality of life of people of the Americas, and serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO).

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