Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Battling obesity epidemic one child at a time

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What will it take to eliminate the current obesity epidemic in children? There's no easy answer and every year children are putting on more pounds. So why not try a new approach? The one veteran politicians use to get elected, the grassroots approach? This is what Dr. Stafford Dobbin, a wily Irishman and family physician, decided to try in the Niagara Region. It should set a standard for the nation.

Dr. Dobbin, a graduate of Queen's University in Belfast, and a family doctor, has a hero. He's Prof. Frank Pantridge, a cardiologist in Belfast who invented the cardiac ambulance. Pantridge was the first to realize that if ambulances carried defibrillators, countless lives of coronary victims would be saved in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

Inspired by his work, Dr. Dobbin established Heart Niagara in 1977 and the Niagara Healthy School Program in 1987. The purpose: the primary prevention of coronary heart disease and obesity in children at an early age in school to save them later on from the complications of hypertension, diabetes and coronary heart disease. It was a mammoth undertaking for a small city without a big budget.

Students were initially disinterested in the project. But eventually, when they understood it involved a simple finger prick to check blood cholesterol level, all of them wanted it done. But one result revealed how many were not tuned to obesity. The students did not think they were overweight. Nor did their overweight parents believe there was a weight problem.

So what has Heart Niagara accomplished? Between 2002 and 2011, Don Gibson, Karen Stearne and a small staff have enrolled 50,000 children. Currently they are registering data with the help of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto on 4,000 Grade 9 children every year in every high school in the Niagara Region. The examination includes body weight, measurement of waist circumference, body mass index, blood pressure and blood cholesterol. And every year, several hundred children are referred to their family physician because the red flag of future cardiovascular risk or other problem was flown.

It's shocking this research discovered five per cent of young children in this community have significantly elevated blood cholesterol levels.

A significant number of 14 and 15-year-old children have at least one cardiovascular risk factor such as high body mass index. The old saying in Ulster, Ireland, proved to be true in this country as well; that "children start digging their graves with their teeth."

Much of what Heart Niagara and The Hospital for Sick Children have found is not new.

Many studies show if two parents are obese, 75 per cent of their children will be overweight. Moreover, it's well-known cardiovascular risk factors are due to faulty eating habits, lack of exercise, too much TV and poor economic status.

But Heart Niagara has made an entire community aware of the link between early-age obesity and later cardiovascular problems.

By identifying these red flags early, they have created a healthier Niagara. And it is a proven fact that an obese child will most certainly become an obese adult at great expense to society.

I asked Dobbin why this project had received so little notice from government and public health organizations; why his pleas for financial help had gone unanswered. His reply didn't surprise me. He said, "If this project had been done in Toronto or another large centre, it would have been a different story." Niagara Falls may have the world-famous falls, but little medical clout.

For years, Heart Niagara has been operating on a shoe-string budget. What he has proven is it's not the size of the dog in a fight that counts, but rather the size of the fight in the dog.

The success of Heart Niagara's work in Niagara Falls should be replicated in the rest of the country; a down-to-earth grassroots approach to identify and forewarn of obesity and cardiovascular disease in early school grades. If we don't catch it then, we must stop kidding ourselves it can be beaten later on.

Why aren't government, health professionals and associations listening?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 25, 2011 A21

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