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Kansas Stuck In The Middle In Overall Health Even As Obesity Rate Climbs

America's Health Rankings/United Health Foundation

Kansas was the only state where the obesity rate went up significantly in 2015, according to an annual report, and state officials are trying to figure out why and how to reverse the trend.

The state also lagged on vaccination rates and remained stuck in the middle on overall health, according to the America’s Health Rankings Report, which was released Thursday.

Kansas ranked 27th in the report, which rates the 50 states on a broad range of measures, including health behaviors, access to care, state policies and residents’ health outcomes. The state has hovered at 26th or 27th since 2013. 

About 34 percent of Kansans, or one in three, were obese, according to the report. That echoes another annual report issued earlier this year by the Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which also noted that Kansas also was one of only two states whose obesity rate increased significantly between 2014 and 2015.

Missouri didn’t fare much better, with 32 percent of residents classified as obese. Its obesity rate also appeared to go up, though the change was not statistically significant.

Jennifer Church, section director for community health promotion at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, says state epidemiologists are analyzing why the obesity rate increased in Kansas when most states were holding steady and a few had decreases.

“We can’t say with any certainty why Kansas is continuing to go up,” she says. “A lot of their strategies (in states where the rate decreased) look the same as what we’re doing.”

Not all people who are obese develop other health problems, but extra weight does increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis and cancers in the uterus, breast, colon, kidney, gallbladder and liver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The report estimated the United States spends about $190.2 billion annually on health issues related to obesity, and about 200,000 people die from related causes each year.

KDHE has provided programs to encourage better nutrition for about 20 years and offers grants for communities that want to include pedestrians and bicyclists in their master transportation plans, Church says.

This coming year, however, KDHE plans to put more emphasis on underserved communities, such as lower-income neighborhoods that can be overlooked when city officials discuss adding bike trails, she says.

“It’s really clear who is disproportionately affected by obesity and tobacco,” she says.

Work remains on vaccines

Kansas also ranked in the bottom 10 states on the percentage of adolescents vaccinated against meningococcal disease and human papillomavirus, or HPV.

Missouri also was in the bottom 10 when it came to vaccinating all teens against meningococcal disease and female teens against HPV. It ranked 32nd for male teens, mostly due to extremely low rates in other states — only about one-quarter of Missouri boys age 13 to 17 had received an HPV shot.

Jennifer VandeVelde, director of KDHE’s Bureau of Disease Control and Prevention, cautioned that the report doesn’t reflect progress in 2015, however. For example, the HPV vaccination rate in Kansas for teen girls increased from about 38 percent in 2014 to about 51 percent last year, which wasn’t captured in the rankings, she says.

KDHE and the Immunize Kansas Coalition are focusing on raising awareness that teens need the HPV and meningococcal vaccinations, as well as a booster to protect them against tetanus, pertussis and diphtheria, VandeVelde says. That includes talking with health providers about using the opportunity when they treat teens to offer vaccines, she says.

“While these rates are still not as high as we would like them to be, there is marked improvement noted in just one year, and we are confident that we will continue to see marked increases under our current strategies,” she said in an email.

Meg Wingerter is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach her on Twitter @meganhartMC

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