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Kanawha County health group names obesity top priority

Obesity, followed by drug abuse and a lack of physical activity, is the biggest health problem facing Kanawha County, according to a group dedicated to improving the community’s health.

The Kanawha Coalition for Community Health Improvement will make combating obesity its top priority for the next three years.

At the KCCHI’s Health Issues Forum Tuesday evening at the University of Charleston, dozens of health and community officials met to prioritize nine major health factors affecting Kanawha County residents, including education, unemployment and cancer.

Officials voted Tuesday that obesity, with drug abuse ranking second and a lack of physical activity ranked third, needs the most attention.

Heart disease and tobacco use followed as the fourth and fifth most critical issues in the county.

Those issues will now be the main focus of the KCCHI through 2017, a group made up of representatives from several organizations including the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and the Charleston Area Alliance, that formed 20 years ago to identify and evaluate health risks, and coordinate resources to improve health countywide.

The basis for Tuesday’s forum was the results of the KCCHI 2014 Community Health Assessment, which surveyed more than 300 households at random and additional “key informants” to identify the health needs of residents and the extent to which those needs are being met.

Survey takers identified unemployment as the number one problem in Kanawha County pertaining to social and economic factors, and a shortage of health-care professionals as the main problem with the area’s health-care system.

Survey takers agreed that drug use, including prescription abuse, is the top problem associated with health behaviors in the county, and suggested more investments in drug addiction and recovery programs, as well as more required drug screenings.

John Ballengee, executive director of the United Way of Central West Virginia, pointed to another part of the study to exemplify the KCCHI’s importance – more than 80 percent of survey takers identified chemicals and water pollution as their top concern in the local environment.

“The key thing to remember is that the survey took place before the chemical spill and the water crisis,” Ballengee said, referring to the Freedom Industry leak into the Elk River in January that polluted drinking water for around 300,000 state residents.

Cynthia Persily, CEO of Highland Hospital, said the KCCHI’s priority list is only the beginning.

“This is a group that gets things done. This is not a group who just sits around and collects data, rather it’s a dynamic organization that really goes after the problems in our community,” Persily said. “We can’t accomplish any of this without any of you.”

Reach Mackenzie Mays at or at 304-348-4814.

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