CHARLESTON (AP) - Childhood obesity rates are declining in West Virginia as schools focus on improving nutrition and increasing physical activity, according to a statewide screening program.
In the 2011-2012 school year, 27.8 percent of fifth-graders screened by West Virginia University's CARDIAC program were obese, compared to 28.9 percent in the 2010-2111 school year.
During the same period, the number of fifth-graders with high blood pressure fell from 24 percent to 20.3 percent. Fifth-graders' abnormal cholesterol rate fell from 26.1 percent to 23.5 percent.
"This is fantastic news," Senate Health and Human Resources Chairman Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said. "We may be at a tipping point for child obesity."
"Obesity, blood pressure and cholesterol are closely related," he said.
The kindergarten obesity rate declined from 17.5 percent to 13.6 percent, the lowest rate in nine years. However, the second-grade obesity rate rose a point to 24.5 percent.
"We'd like to bring that down too," said Rick Goff, director of the state Office of Child Nutrition. "The drop in the other numbers shows us we can."
Dr. Bill Neal, director of the CARDIAC program, said the numbers are encouraging but more must be done.
"This is cause to hope and reason to keep trying," Neal told the newspaper. "If these numbers are still down next year, we'll know it's a genuine trend. So this is no time to ease off in our efforts.
"It's important to remember that one in five 11-year-olds with high blood pressure is still very alarming," he said. "We can't get complacent. But the numbers are going in the right direction."
Children with high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol and/or obesity are at high risk of future diabetes, heart disease and other costly chronic illnesses, he said.
A child's blood pressure is high if it is higher than 95 percent of children in a national sample.
"If we can get kids healthier, we're turning off the spigot, where diabetes and other chronic illness is concerned," Stollings said. "We can't do as much about the water in the pipelines, but if we can turn off the spigot, we're making big progress."
Schools statewide increased physical activity and improved nutrition during the 2011-2012 school year. Processed food served in schools declined and cooks in 26 counties were trained to cook from scratch, Goff said.
Neal said former state Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple deserves credit for spearheading a statewide push to get kids more physically active.
Superintendent James Phares, who replaced Marple, said he supported the initiative as a county superintendent and he will support it as state superintendent.
Parents' awareness of the health risks of obesity, inactivity and junk food is increasing, said Stephen Smith, director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition.
"We've done 42 community meetings statewide, and children's health is a top priority everywhere. People keep saying kids need to be outside instead of sitting in front of screens."
The CARDIAC program began the annual statewide screening in schools in 1998. Fifty-three of the state's 55 school systems will participate in the 2012-2013 screening.