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Overweight and obesity are growing problems in the Americas that have multiple causes and that demand action across sectors, not just health, said PAHO Deputy Director Dr. Jon Andrus at a forum on "Obesity: Scientific, Lifestyle, and Policy Approaches," hosted by the Embassy of Italy in Washington, D.C.

Rates of overweight and obesity are on the rise in countries throughout the Americas, Andrus said, making the issue a top priority for PAHO. The Organization's approach to the issue emphasizes three points.

First, "it is a complex problem that extends across the lifespan. But this means there are opportunities to address the problem across the lifespan. For example, on day one: a mother who breastfeeds is less likely to have obese children and is less likely to be overweight herself."

Second, action to fight obesity must go beyond individual risk factors and address the social determinants of health. "In the Americas—the world's most unequal region—these determinants are critical and require us to address problems such as rapid urbanization, poor planning, poor access to healthy foods, and not enough areas to exercise," Andrus said.

Third, prevention is "absolutely critical and must be grounded in evidence." Toward this end, PAHO provides technical cooperation to help each country develop its own evidence base, Andrus said.

Obesity provides a good "point of entry" for addressing chronic non-communicable diseases in general, which are the leading causes of death and illness throughout the Americas, said Andrus.The best interventions—the public health "best buys"—will be those that use an all-of-society approach and that address multiple chronic disease risk factors. For example, an estimated 3.2 million lives could be saved over the next decade in Latin America and the Caribbean by reducing smoking prevalence by 20 percent and salt intake by 15 percent, while providing hydrochlorothiazide for high blood pressure to 60 percent of patients who already have chronic diseases, Andrus said.

 "We have to push the pedal and make sure we tackle this challenge, the way we have successfully tackled other health challenges in our region in the past."