Americans Experiencing ‘Pandemic of Obesity,’ says Director of Centers for Disease Control

ATLANTA — Eating too much and not exercising enough is creating a health hazard to Americans more imminent than the threat of bioterrorism and comparable in seriousness to the plagues that swept Europe centuries ago, says Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“There’s a pandemic of obesity we are experiencing in this country,” said Gerberding. “If you looked at any epidemic — whether it’s influenza or plague from the Middle Ages — they are not as serious as the epidemic of obesity in terms of the health impact on our country and our society.”

Gerberding, who took over as CDC director in July 2002, made the remarks during a speech she gave Feb. 20 to a group of Terry College of Business alumni and guests at the University of Georgia’s Atlanta Alumni Center

Gerberding said Americans are becoming overweight in larger numbers earlier in life, with 15 percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 19 being obese.

“Those kids are getting adult-type diabetes because they’re overweight. We’re seeing an absolute epidemic of diabetes in the schools in this country because children are just not getting the right exercise,” she said. “The gap between what they’re eating and what they’re expending is getting larger on an annual basis.”

To get the message directly to children to stop eating and start exercising, the CDC is sponsoring ad campaigns like the popular VERB! commercials on Nickelodeon, which encourage kids to find a physical activity they like and do it.

However, the CDC has to get the word out to adults, too, Gerberding said. In some areas of the United States, more than 60 percent of the population is seriously overweight.

“It’s a terrible problem,” said Gerberding. “It’s not a cosmetic problem. It’s a health issue. Obesity is the major risk factor for diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and certain cancers. It is a very, very important problem and we have only begun to scratch the surface. People have to eat less and exercise more.”

In addition to concerns about chronic health problems like obesity, Gerberding has had to increase the CDC’s capabilities and preparedness for dealing with terrorist attacks using chemical and biological agents. That preparedness was tested earlier this week when an alarm at CDC headquarters was accidentally triggered by dust from ongoing construction, launching a series of prearranged emergency responses by federal, state and local officials. Gerberding said everyone involved executed the emergency procedures as planned. There have been similar false alarms at CDC recently involving white powders, but Gerberding said they also made for good training.

“Every false alarm is an opportunity to practice,” she said. “We’re getting better and better at this all the time.”

Gerberding was the featured speaker at the Terry Third Thursday Atlanta executive speaker series, held on the third Thursday of each month at the Atlanta Financial Center in Buckhead. The program is co-sponsored by UGA’s Terry College of Business, the Atlanta Business Chronicle and Public Broadcasting Atlanta.