HONOLULU - Researchers from Hawaii to Samoa to Alaska are receiving $25 million to study how to prevent obesity in native populations living in remote parts of the Pacific, the federal government said Wednesday.
The five-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant will fund studies on what types of environmental factors are contributing to obesity in children. Researches in the program are also due to work with communities to prevent obesity by developing programs that promote healthy eating and activities.
Scholars and communities in Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Micronesia and the Northern Mariana Islands are due to participate.
Rachel Novotny, the University of Hawaii professor heading the project, said there isn't much good data about obesity in the targeted communities. But she said data indicated an estimated 60 to 90 percent of adults were overweight and obese, while the figure was 15 to 45 percent for children ages 2 to 8.
Novotny said these rates, which are higher than national averages, are contributing to high rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Roger Beachy, the director of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which is administering the grant, said President Barack Obama, Congress, school systems and the public have all shown a strong interest in reducing childhood obesity.
Obesity interferes with children's ability to study, learn and sleep, he said. It affects the work force, U.S. competitiveness and national security, as the prevalence of obesity means fewer youths are prepared to enter the military.
"You can see that it becomes a national issue in so many fronts. Addressing the issue of predilection to obesity needs to be addressed at the bud, early on in development of the children," Beachy said.
The situation in the Pacific Islands has become so dire, the Pacific Island Health Officers Association declared an emergency at its 50th meeting earlier this month.
"It's bad now, but this is just the beginning. Our children are more obese and less active than in any other generation. Since this is an emergency, let's treat it like one," Dr. Stevenson Kuartei, the association president and health minister for Palau, said in a statement.
Novotny said not enough research has been done to say why obesity rates are high in native populations in the Pacific.
But she said her educated guess was that the communities depend heavily on imported foods that are processed and high in calories. In addition, like the rest of the world, many people have become more sedentary.
Changes like having parks and schoolyards stay open later could promote better health, Novotny said.