Washington, D.C., 29 September 2014 (PAHO/WHO) — First Lady Wilma Pastrana Jiménez of Puerto Rico today endorsed a Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) plan of action to prevent child and adolescent obesity, which has reached epidemic proportions in the Americas.

Recent data show that 20-25% of children under 19 in Latin America are overweight or obese. In the United States, one-third of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight. Key drivers of the epidemic are consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and high-calorie, low-nutrient foods—so-called junk food and fast food—and low levels of physical activity.

"Rates of obesity in our hemisphere exceed the global rate. The statistics on child obesity are particularly alarming," said Pastrana Jiménez, adding that "many of those affected come from the poorest and most marginalized communities."

Saying it is time to "change things" to address this largely preventable problem, Pastrana Jiménez announced that Puerto Rico will propose its own plan to counter child obesity, following the strategic lines of action in the PAHO plan of action that ministers of health from throughout the Americas will be considering at this week's 53rd PAHO Directing Council.

"We cannot be passive co-authors of a terrible harm that society is committing against  our children. It is the ethical duty of our governments and of all social sectors—the public, civil society, nongovernmental organizations, universities and research institutes, all of them—to treat this as a priority. We have to act," she said.

PAHO's plan of action seeks to help countries in the Americas reduce rates of child and adolescent obesity through measures including promotion of breastfeeding, preventing access to unhealthy foods and increasing physical activity in schools, raising taxes on junk food and sweetened beverages, promoting recreational spaces, and creating incentives for small and medium-size agricultural producers to make fresh foods more accessible.

Pastrana Jiménez said her office has spearheaded several social and education initiatives since January 2013, including Activa tu Vida ("Activate your life") and Siembra Vida ("Seed life"), which promote healthy lifestyles to prevent child obesity. Activa tu Vida has reached more than 20,000 children, youths and adults with information on healthy eating and healthy living. Siembra Vida has involved some 18,000 people in planting school, family, and community vegetable gardens.

"We need to educate people about the importance of food production and consumption patterns that meet the basic requirements of good nutrition and the importance of reducing consumption of sugar and fat," she said.

"I invite you to continue this effort with me, joining in the fight against the obesity epidemic in our communities, to guarantee better quality of life for ourselves and for future generations."

Puerto Rico has been an Associate Member of PAHO since 1992.  The Organization's technical cooperation with Puerto Rico focuses on noncommunicable diseases, health promotion, nursing, bioethics, healthy aging, communicable disease, suicide prevention, environmental health, knowledge management and disasters and humanitarian assistance.