New health chief wants to kick it up a notch

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Karen Hacker, the new Allegheny County Health Department executive director, has only been in Pittsburgh for a week but she hit the ground running, or at least walking aerobically, at her first Health Board meeting Wednesday.

She proposed that the Health Department spearhead a new obesity prevention initiative and invited Allegheny County residents to join her, in their communities, through the parks and up the stairs.

The initiative, which she said needs a good name and logo but which she temporarily dubbed "Active Allegheny," will build on a wide range of existing weight-control programs, and draw on support and expertise from the city and county schools, health care and nutrition professionals, unions, foundations, and community groups.

Dr. Hacker, formerly an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director at the Institute for Community Health in Boston, said 30 to 40 percent of the population nationally is overweight or obese.

"This is a huge national problem and a problem in Allegheny County, too," Dr. Hacker said. "This kind of coordinated effort seems to be needed here. There are a lot of things going on in this area, but no one has the sense of how they all fit together.

"I see the role of the Health Department as that of a convener that can pull all of these sectors ... together."

Dr. Hacker, who has worked on similar obesity prevention programs in other states over the past decade, said workplace weight-loss initiatives, school-based education and activity efforts, and programs to reduce television and computer screen time and also increase physical activity have all been successful in addressing the problem.

Board members appointed a task force to gather data and, according to Lee Harrison, board chair, "start developing a comprehensive approach."

The task force members, in addition to Dr. Hacker, include Health Board members Joylette Portlock, Ellen Stewart and Anthony Ferraro.

health

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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