Leader Blues

Monday, April 02, 2007

TOP STORY >>Local youth, like parents, neglecting health

IN SHORT: Drug and alcohol use is rampant among Jacksonville school children as their parents struggle with obesity’s effects.

Leader staff writer

Youth in Jacksonville and neighboring cities are often at greater risk than other Arkansas children of harming themselves and others.

Officials from the Division of Health and Human Services (DHHS) met in Jacksonville on Thursday about the declining state of north Pulaski County residents’ health.

In addition to severe medical problems facing adults, they said that youth are following in their parents’ footsteps in neglecting their health.

Hayes Miller of DHHS’s Family Services agency said about 21 percent of sixth graders in north Pulaski County have already experimented with alcohol and about that same number have been suspended from school, according to the “2005 Arkansas Prevention Needs Assessment Student Survey.”

“What affects one of us will at some time affect all of us,” Miller said, noting that nearly half of sixth graders who said they drank alcohol did it in someone else’s home. About one-third who drank found the alcohol in their own homes.

The number of children who drink and use drugs increases as they get older along with suspensions, being drunk or high at school, arrests, drug dealing, violent attacks and carrying weapons.

“We can tell the kids not to drink or do drugs over and over. They know we don’t want them to do it, but if they see adults doing it, we have to look at the adults and change their attitudes toward alcohol use,” Hayes said.

Martha Phillips, Director of Pub-lic Health at DHHS, said that many preventable, but severe medical problems are the leading cause of death among central Arkansans.

“I would say obesity is at an epidemic level,” Dr. Phillips said about north Pulaski County, where 62 percent of people are obese. She said that other health challenges exist here, most notably heart disease, cancer and stroke.

“These are the hardest to deal with because these are where people have to make the hard decisions about smoking and nutrition,” Dr. Phillips said.

Poor nutrition, smoking and lack of physical activity are what generally cause most deaths in the state, she said.

Cancer rates are the only stratum that has decreased recently, because public awareness of the need for preventive screenings has risen due in part to health fairs, many of them conducted by the Jacksonville Health Improvement Coalition (JHIC). JHIC meets the third Thursday of every month at 1:30 p.m. at Rebsamen Medical Center. An upcoming forum on drug and alcohol use prevention among children for parents, grandparents and counselors is being planned for August.

The coalition would eventually like to open a charity clinic for the uninsured and medically underserved in Jacksonville, JHIC president Kristen James said.

Many Arkansans are uninsured, Phillips said. In north Pulaski County, 14 percent of people have no health insurance and 13 percent do not have doctors.

“A marker of a developed society is a place where someone can go where their medical history is known, not just where they can treat acute medical problems,” she said.

The uninsured, elderly and African Americans account for most of the medically underserved population in Arkansas but Phillips said that 13 percent of Pulaski County residents between the ages of 18 and 39 have high blood pressure. High blood pressure and heart disease are leading causes of stroke.

Arkansas is first in the country for rates of death by stroke, although that number is declining slightly, possibly due to increased blood pressure and cholesterol screenings and better emergency medical services.

Dr. Phillips said that prevention of deadly diseases can start any time, but children especially need to be educated on how to lead healthy lives.

“We need more playgrounds, walking tracks and healthy options in vending machines. It starts young,” she said.