U.S. university program to target major Latin killer ailments

Major health care problems associated with non-communicable diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory conditions are not unique to the United States. In fact, such illnesses are a concern across the globe, and are growing at an alarming rate in some developing regions like Latin America.

The unprecedented increase can be attributed in part to rapid urbanization and the influence of western lifestyles, say University of Michigan School of Public Health researchers, who have received funding to develop a program for Latin America aimed at prevention of these diseases.

Ana Diez-Roux, professor and director of the Center for Integrative Approaches to Health Disparities and of the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health, and Dr. Eduardo Villamor, associate professor of epidemiology, are co-investigators on a $1.4 million National Institutes of Health five-year grant that will provide several levels of training to health professionals, aimed at reversing the growth of non-communicable diseases.

The program establishes partnerships with two research sites in Latin America, the Comprehensive Center for the Prevention of Chronic Diseases from the Institute of Nutrition for Central America and Panama in Guatemala, and the National University of Lanus, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Latin America is an exciting and important region to work and establish these bridges,” Villamor said.

“Non communicable diseases are a major cause of morbidity and mortality in Latin America. In addition, social and
economic changes occurring throughout the region are increasing the prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors,” Ms. Diez-Roux said. “It is, therefore, imperative to support training in the area in order to better understand the determinants of non-communicable diseases in these countries, and develop the most effective policies and interventions to reduce the population burden of these conditions.”

The education will involve training junior-level health care professionals at Michigan’s School of Public Health and in Latin America, Villamor said. The program will provide scholarships for graduate and post-doctoral students from Latin America. The in-site training will take the form of workshops, online journal clubs, and webinars.

Research will be promoted through the training experiences of the Latin American scholars, he said.

“Rapid environmental changes — including changes in diet and physical activity patterns — are occurring in Latin America, and it is important to document how they are occurring and how they are affecting people’s health,” said Villamor. These changes involve diets that are high in refined sugars, saturated fat, and salt, and marked declines in physical activity, all of which are contributing to an obesity epidemic, Villamor said.

Ms. Diez-Roux said lessons learned from combating these illnesses in other regions have influenced their approach to this project.

Globally non-communicable diseases account for 63 percent of deaths and low- and middle-income countries currently experience 80 percent of the world’s deaths due to such illnesses, the university said.

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