CHARLESTON W.Va. — Number one in obesity, number one in diabetes and number one in cardiovascular disease, West Virginia has some health issues.

Health leaders and policymakers from 16 southern states are gathering in Charleston at the 12th annual Southern Obesity Summit, that runs through Wednesday, to come up with solutions and discussion on how to tackle those issues with adults and children.

“We are pleased to draw attention to the obesity problems that all 16 states have and we lead the nation in terms of obesity,” Bill J. Crouch, Cabinet Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said. “We are trying to change that and trying to make a difference in terms of people’s activity and what they do. We are looking to promote this as a serious problem that needs attention.”

The summit got underway Monday at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center with registration and an exhibit hall open. West Virginia is co-hosting with Texas and Texas Health Institute.

A welcome to West Virginia and Town Hall Meeting took place Monday evening with Crouch, Ankit Sanghavi, the Executive Director of Texas Health Institute, Jim Strawn of Jim Strawn and Company, along with keynote speakers Torrie Harris, the Health and Equity Strategist for the City of New Orleans Health Department and James Fawcett, the President of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield West Virginia.

“This is a serious problem,” Crouch said. “It’s a health problem. It’s a problem that needs more attention, needs more dollars. Obesity, the more it’s studied, the more it looks like obesity is an addiction. There are changes in the brain in terms of individuals patterns of use. Habits become addictions and we need to address this serious health problem.”

Crouch notes that more and more West Virginians are becoming obese as the numbers trend upwards and the state is number seven in childhood obesity.

Children’s health, early child care and health in schools are among topics this year in the summit with many learning sessions and discussions revolving around them. Other focus areas of the summit will include food access, nutrition, health care, physical activity, and worksite wellness.

Many school health leaders made the trek to Charleston in part because of the agenda, like Baptist Health School Health Wellness Program Coordinator and Madisonville, Kentucky native Kelcey Rutledge.

“It’s a big focus this year and I appreciate that,” he said. “I’ve been to some conferences where it’s more so on the practice, which is great, but we don’t see patients or anything like that. It’s good to look at it from both sides.”

“We feel like the whole purpose of our program is, we catch them while they are young and change the children’s perceptions of health to where they want to be healthy, and the fun side as well as the necessity. If we work to implement a model that follows them through their school life, when they go into their adult life, they are more likely to continue those habits.”

There is expected to be around 325 attendees at the summit, which is the largest regional obesity summit in the country. This is the first time West Virginia has hosted the event for Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Other hosts include Little Rock, AR, Birmingham, AL, Austin, TX, Atlanta, GA, New Orleans, LA, Charlotte, NC, Nashville, TN, Louisville, KY, Jackson, MS, and Houston, TX.

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