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PAHO: "Keep Children Lean and Active, Prevent Cancer Later in Life"

World Cancer Day marked with launch of "I love my healthy, active childhood" global campaign

Cancer Day 2009 PosterWashington, DC, February 4, 2009 (PAHO) — Establishing healthy habits early in life—particularly eating well and being active—is critical to lowering cancer rates in adulthood, experts from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said today in observance of World Cancer Day 2009.

Pledging support for this year's World Cancer Day campaign—"I Love My Healthy, Active Childhood"—PAHO Director Dr. Mirta Roses Periago called on parents, teachers, health professionals, and decision-makers to promote healthy eating and physical activity among children.

"On a global level, 3 to 4 million new cancer cases could be prevented each year by avoiding excess body weight," said Roses. "Unfortunately, in nearly every country of the Americas, the trend among children is now toward more overweight and obesity. This will almost certainly raise the risk of developing cancer in later years."

Scientific studies show a strong link between overweight/obesity and cancers including esophageal, kidney, endometrial, pancreatic, breast, and colorectal cancers. Body or abdominal fatness is also linked, though somewhat less strongly, with cancer of the gallbladder.

Yet a recent survey by the International Union against Cancer (UICC) shows that public awareness of the relationship between excess body weight and cancer is low. About 40 percent of people in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, and western Asia are unaware that being overweight increases one's risk of cancer. In other regions, awareness is even lower.

"Current lack of public understanding of the link between body weight and cancer probably parallels our attitudes to smoking and cancer in the late 1950s," said David Hill, president of the UICC.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, recent studies suggest increasing rates of obesity in children; a 2007 survey in Chile, for example, found that nearly 20 percent of 6-year-olds were obese. A 1999 survey in Mexico found that 19.5 percent of school-age children were overweight or obese.

Worldwide, an estimated 22 million children under 5 are overweight or obese. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by 2015, some 2.3 billion adults will be overweight, with 700 million of them obese.

Public health experts attribute the growing trend toward excess body weight to multiple factors, including diets rich in energy-dense foods, globalization of the world's food supply, urbanization, labor-saving devices, and sedentary forms of transportation and entertainment. These combine to create a generally "obesogenic" environment that makes it increasingly difficult for people to control their weight.

One of the central messages of this year's World Cancer Day campaign is that the best way to achieve healthy body weight is to adopt healthy habits—eating lots of fruits and vegetables and being physically active—in childhood and to maintain them throughout life. Families, schools, and colleges all play an important role in ensuring that children limit their intake of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods and drinks and spend enough time (at least 60 minutes per day) in physical activities such as games, sports, and outdoor play. Equally important are public policies that affect such environmental aspects as transportation systems, fresh food prices, and the availability of green spaces and recreational areas.

"We can and must help children to adopt healthier lifestyles," said PAHO Director Roses. "But this is not just an individual responsibility of parents and children. We also need action by governments, private industry, schools and communities to make sure that healthier choices are the easier choices for both children and adults to make."

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The Pan American Health Organization, founded in 1902, works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of their peoples. It serves as the Regional Office of the World Health Organization (WHO).

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