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Imported Foods Raise Obesity, Health Issues for Pacific Islanders

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This is the VOA Special English Development Report.

The World Health Organization says obesity rates are rising in Pacific island countries. So, too, are health problems linked to being overweight.

The WHO says a major reason for the rising obesity rates is an increase in imported foods. It says many Pacific islanders have replaced their traditional diets of vegetables and fruits with imported processed foods.

Dr. Temu Waqanivalu is with the World Health Organization's South Pacific office in Suva, Fiji. He says many of the imported products lack nutritional value. But they are widely available, he says, and often cost less than healthier foods.

TEMU WAQANIVALU: "In some of the places, you'd be amazed to see how a bottle of Coke is cheaper than a bottle of water. I think that represents the kind of off-environment we've created that doesn't really encourage or make lifestyle choices an easy choice for the population."

Dr. Waqanivalu says the increase in imported foods is only part of the problem. He says problems with agriculture production limit the availability of healthier foods. And a lack of physical activity among many Pacific islanders only adds to the obesity problem.

The WHO says more than fifty percent of the population is overweight in at least ten Pacific island countries. The rate is as high as eighty percent among women in the territory of American Samoa. Fiji had the lowest obesity rate at thirty percent.

In all, almost ten million people live in Pacific island countries. The WHO estimates that about forty percent of them have health disorders related to diet and nutrition.

Diabetes rates are among the highest in the world. Forty-seven percent of the people in American Samoa have diabetes. So do forty-four percent of the people in Tokelau, a territory of New Zealand.

By comparison, the diabetes rate is thirteen percent in the United States, a country that has its own problems with rising obesity.

Officials also note an increase in nutritional problems like anemia and not enough vitamin A in the diets of Pacific islanders. Dr. Waqanivalu says treating conditions related to obesity and diet puts pressure on limited health resources and budgets.

Earlier this year, leaders of island nations met in Vanuatu for the first-ever Pacific Food Summit. Dr. Waqanivalu says the issues are finally getting the attention they deserve.

And that's the VOA Special English Development Report, written by June Simms. You can post comments and find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs at I'm Steve Ember.