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“Timebomb” According To Sir Liam Donaldson

Thursday, January 1st, 2009 “Timebomb” According To Sir Liam Donaldson

Featured in the news on several levels is that of obesity. There appears to be a barrage of information and a sense of a blame culture emerging.

One must consider the individual health of a person and the economic cost to the Country as a whole. There are indeed very serious implications.

What is fundamental and requires strong consideration are the consequences from the government, advertising, fast food agencies and processed food in our shops.

Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Sir Liam Donaldson has written for the BBC (18 12 08) with regards to obesity. He has a stark warning for us all. He states, “many people are still failing to deal with the realities of the obesity problem.”

In addition, the CMO argues with fervour, “I first warned about the “obesity timebomb” in my 2002 annual report, pointing to the increasing number of children and adults who weigh much more than previous generations.

I said then that there would be serious implications for the country’s future health if the problem continued to grow unchecked.

For the individual, being seriously overweight increases their risk of developing or dying from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and some other illnesses. It reduces quality of life and well-being.

For society, there are also major implications in greater health service demand, lost industrial productivity and increased incapacity benefit payments.

The estimated cost to the national economy is £15 billion.

Notwithstanding, Donaldson confirms that his report had a huge impact and has never been far from the news. Moreover he believes his report showed obesity became a bigger issue than either smoking or the MMR vaccine - both “hot topics”.

Hitherto, the obesity story more specifically has also inspired many questions. As stated by the CMO, “How much should we spend on school meals? Are parents of obese children bad parents? What are the limits and responsibilities of the state in taking action? What is the place for banning things? Should fat patients go to the back of the queue for NHS treatment?

Indeed legendary images have also emerged in relation to obesity, such as Jamie Oliver (passionate about good food) attempting to challenge the mothers in Rotheram to cook nutritious food, instead of eating take-away or processed food. We also have the image of the mothers pushing pies through the school gates when school meals were very topical. For those so over-weight who opted for stomach stapling operations.

What does this mean? Medical research priorities often reflect public concern about the seriousness of a disease.

Obesity used to be the interest only of specialists. It has moved from the professional to the personal and the political.

For the Cief Medical Officer, who states, Today, the word obesity arouses deep feelings and provokes strong opinions. It influences in ways that can’t always be predicted.

A couple of years ago I was at a meeting to discuss action on obesity. The meeting was downbeat and people said very little.

I was annoyed: “where are the ideas?”, “where is your enthusiasm?”, “why can’t we rise to the challenge” I asked them.

I felt like the manager in the half-time dressing room at St James’s Park on a bad day.

As it turns out, a person returned to the room and confided, “We couldn’t talk about it properly because someone obese was in the room.” Political correctness emerges.

Classification of how obesity is measured need to be clarified.A BMI between 18.5 and 25 is a healthy weight, 25 to 30 is overweight, while anything over 30 is ‘obese’.

Donaldson goes on to discuss the issues surrrounding planning the results letters to parents following the National Child Measurement Programme. The purpose being that the initiative was to monitor children’s health.

However what became problematic was the wording of the feedback letter to individual parents. The CMO reports at an earlier stage some child health professionals had argued against the idea of a school-based weighing and measuring scheme because it would stigmatise overweight or obese children and lead to them being bullied. To some extent, there is a level of understanding from that point of view.

Indeed, when the letter was field-tested with parents in focus group interviews there was a clear message that the term “obese” was unpopular.

They felt they were being personally blamed for their child’s health, and that their child would be “labelled for life”.

The majority of these parents felt that using the term “very overweight” in combination with the associated health risks was a better approach. Yet some disageed arguing that this was colluding with a form of denial and the real problem was that some parents were not facing up to or engaging with the need to act.

In essence the word “obesity” has become the new cancer, taboo, intimidates and creates a fear culture of which there is a need to get away from if the issues are to be tackled full on.

As Donaldson argues, “We cannot afford to alienate parents. They need to be engaged and active in helping to solve the problem.

On the other hand, the obesity epidemic is a national crisis. Doing nothing is not an option.

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