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Published in Print: June 16, 2004, as Health Update

Health Update

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Arkansas Study Raises Questions On Child Obesity

In what’s described as the broadest look at childhood obesity to date, a study shows that 40 percent of Arkansas students are overweight, suggesting that the problem may be worse nationally than previous estimates indicated.

Arkansas is the first state in the country to require yearly body-mass index, or BMI, screening for all of its 450,000 public school students, and this was the first year those measurements were taken by school nurses across the state and analyzed.

For More Info
View the initial results from the Arkansas body-mass index analysis online.

Other recent large-scale studies by organizations such as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta showed that roughly 30 percent of school-age children were overweight.

But based on data for the 276,783 Arkansas students whose measurements have been compiled and analyzed so far, 38 percent of white students in that state are overweight. The numbers are even higher for minority students: 43 percent for blacks and 47 percent for Hispanics.

So, are Arkansas children heavier than the rest of the nation’s young people?

Probably not, says James E. Bost, the associate director of health data and statistics for the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. The organization oversees the collection and analysis of the student bmi measurements, and released the initial results last week.

"The CDC data is about four years old now and is based on a much smaller student sample," Mr. Bost said. "I think the nation as a whole is probably coming closer to what Arkansas is seeing now."

As in other states in recent years, public officials in Arkansas have taken a number of steps to trim youngsters’ waistlines, such as removing vending machines from elementary schools and setting up nutrition and exercise advisory committees in every school district. But the most controversial and unusual move taken by state legislators was mandating the annual weight screenings for students and requiring that information to be sent home to each child’s parents in a health report card starting this school year.

Before the start of the coming school year, the final statewide analysis of the measurements should be released to the public with more in-depth looks at factors such as income, race, and gender, Mr. Bost said.

Also by summer’s end, all the report cards will be mailed to parents with their children’s height, weight, and bmi and an explanation of the body-mass index figure. Superintendents will also receive reports for their districts, detailing the number of students screened and breaking out the results by grade and gender.

Vision Screening

A federal panel of health experts has recommended that all preschool-age children be regularly screened for vision problems. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says it found "fair evidence" that vision screenings for young children are reasonably good at identifying lazy eye, crossed eyes, and other vision problems.

The independent advisory panel also found that early treatment, particularly for the potentially sight-stealing lazy eye, can lead to improved vision. The task force concludes in guidelines posted on its Web site this month that "the benefits of screening are likely to outweigh the potential harms."

But now there’s debate over the effectiveness of the most commonly used screening tools to spot problems in the youngest children.

Initial results from an ongoing study of several thousand preschoolers in five cities, published in the April 2004 issue of Ophthalmology and sponsored by the National Eye Institute, suggest that the 11 most common tools used in vision screenings vary widely in their effectiveness for detecting children with lazy eye and other problems.

Vision disorders are the fourth most prevalent class of disability in the United States, and the most prevalent disability in childhood, according to the National Eye Institute, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, but only 22 percent of preschool children receive some type of vision screening.

Kentucky is the only state that requires comprehensive eye exams for children before they enter kindergarten. Typically, the responsibility for spotting vision problems in children falls to pediatricians, primary-care physicians, and school nurses, who typically rely on simple tests for distance vision. ("Ky. Law Focuses on Youngsters' Eyesight," April 30, 2003.)

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Vol. 23, Issue 40, Page 18

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