CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It has a long way to go, but West Virginia is starting to turn around the epidemic of childhood obesity.
More than 27 percent of the state's fifth-graders were considered obese in 2011. But at a recent Voices for Healthy Kids Conference, officials said that's a decline from 8.6 percent since 2005.
That makes West Virginia one of only five states showing a reversal.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Heart Association organized the conference.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting says Nebraska, California, North Carolina and New Mexico have also seen drops in childhood obesity.
Though the rates are still high in West Virginia, experts say any improvements are worth celebrating.
"Considering childhood obesity has been a virtual tsunami, any reversal in any community is an exciting development,'' said Bill Roach, chairman of an advisory committee to the Voices for Healthy Kids initiative.
"That's really why we wanted to bring these communities together in Washington,'' he said, "to educate others as to how they've been able to do it. Now is an 8.6 percent reduction significant? We'd love to see a 90 percent reduction. But the point is we're seeing a reversal in the trend.''
The Voices for Healthy Kids initiative aims to reverse the nation's childhood obesity epidemic by 2015.
Dr. Jamie Jeffrey of Charleston Area Medical Center said she wasn't trained in how to treat Type 2 diabetes 20 years ago, so she had to re-educate herself and learn how to tackle adult diseases in children.
"I had a 2-year-old patient that weighed over 100 pounds,'' she said.
The child was too obese to walk, and she was on medication for sleep apnea.
"So it's really not only the number of kids affected but the severity of the disease,'' Jeffrey said.
West Virginia has taken several approaches to the problem, including requiring healthier meals in public schools, building parks and walking or biking paths, and supporting community gardens to grow more vegetables.
"This is the first sign that we have at least stabilized the epidemic,'' Jeffrey said, "and now we need it to make a big U-turn.''