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Obesity-related illnesses are a major burden on Mississippi

$757 million

In an effort to ramp up the fight against obesity in the state, the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMC) has started raising money that will fund an obesity and diabetes research center at the hospital.

Dr. John Hall, associate vice chancellor for research at UMC, said the new Center for Excellence in Obesity and Metabolic Disease Research would attack obesity-related health issues from a number of angles with a medically diverse group of doctors, scientists, clinical researchers and other specialists.

“Multidisciplinary centers bring people together from bench to bedside,” Hall said in a news release from the hospital.

Hall has joined other UMC leaders to recruit a director. Developers are raising funds to get the center off the ground. UMC public affairs spokesman Jack Mazurak said initial start-up and three years’ worth of operating costs will run approximately $4.5 million and will come from multiple public and private sources, including grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through the National Institutes of Health.

Ultimately, UMC officials hope the center will employ 15 people in new positions by the end of its third year in operation. Scientific researchers will fill eight of those positions.

UMC officials hope the center will fill a vacuum created by Mississippi’s lack of a specifically defined strategy to combat obesity, a condition whose treatment drains hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s Medicaid budget annually and one that most experts target as one whose prevalence will spread.

The center’s long-term goals are:

• Along with creating a multidisciplinary team, to use technology such as in-vivo molecular imaging, molecular genetics, drug development, bioinformatics, systems analysis and mathematical modeling

• To translate findings into specific prevention and treatment methods for obesity and related diseases

• To educate and train the next generation of researchers and clinicians

• To educate the public and healthcare professionals in obesity prevention

• To stimulate economic growth in Mississippi

“We’re already leaders in cardiovascular disease research (with UMC’s Center for Excellence in Cardiovascular-Renal Research). We should be leaders in obesity and diabetes research,” Hall said.

When the center is up and running, its faculty will have their work cut out for them. In nearly every report that gauges the level of obesity in individual states, Mississippi consistently has the highest population percentage classified as obese — or grossly overweight.

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Mississippi State Department of Health reveal that 32 percent of the state’s residents are too heavy for their height. That is the largest percentage in the nation. The latest numbers available are for the year 2007.

The same study that gauged unhealthy habits among Mississippians found that 11 percent of them have diabetes, 24 percent said they were current cigarette smokers, 34 percent said they had been told by a health professional that their blood pressure was too high and 85 percent reported they were taking medication for high blood pressure.

In a 2005 study conducted by the CDC, Mississippi was last in the nation in heart disease deaths per capita, with 306.8 out of 100,000 people in the state dying from heart disease or related illness.

The state Department of Health and the CDC put the annual costs incurred from the treatment of obesity-related illnesses at $757 million. The hidden costs of obesity are its potential to hurt the state when it comes to attracting high-skill industry because of the increased cost of healthcare and lost work time due to related illnesses.

“About 75 percent of the burden of type II diabetes is driven by obesity,” said Dr. Gabriel Uwaifo, endocrinologist and associate professor of medicine at UMC. “The big problem to attack is obesity. If you tackle that, then you can tackle a significant portion of diabetes.

A good way of doing that, Uwaifo said, is to focus on preventive care.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@msbusiness.com .

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