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New Perspectives on Covering Diabetes

New Perspectives on Covering Diabetes

Picture of Matthew Richmond

The worldwide diabetes epidemic threatens to make today's children the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents.

Coming up with ways to blunt the force of this epidemic is of such importance to Dr. Francine Kaufman, a researcher, pediatrician and advocate, that she produced a book and a documentary to educate the public on the need for changes in every aspect of our lives - from individual habits to the environments in which we live.

Dr. Kaufman, one of three speakers on a Saturday panel about reporting on diabetes and obesity, presented a collection of sobering U.S. statistics: a new case of diabetes is diagnosed every 40 seconds; one in three children born in 2000 will develop the disease; in 2007, about $174 billion was spent on diabetes treatment; by 2020, the percentage of Latinos with diabetes is expected to double.

As an advocate, Dr. Kaufman has been involved in many initiatives aimed at reducing obesity in children. She also is famously outspoken about unhealthy environments she encounters in her own life. While speaking at the Broadcast Fellowships, she recommended that the program provide fewer muffins and more fruit. She stays fit despite a punishing international career by walking a treadmill or lifting free weights during meetings in her office and believes that integrating exercise into work rhythms is the only way many people can fit exercise into their day.

"It's not about putting aside an hour everyday for exercise. Nobody has time for that, especially those struggling to make ends meet," she said.

It's the alarming rise of diabetes in the Latino communities that spurred major projects undertaken by the two other speakers on the obesity-diabetes link, freelancer Norma de la Vega and Univision San Antonio reporter Monica Navarro.

"As a reporter, I asked many Latinos this question: What is the most important thing in life? The answer is always the same: being healthy," said De la Vega. "However, I noticed that there is not enough information in the Spanish media about health issues. In fact, most Spanish newspapers do not have a health section."

De la Vega, writing for the Spanish-language publication Enlace, chronicled over a period of months the efforts of a group of farm workers in a weight-loss program. De la Vega knew the program's founder, a San Diego woman named Maria Chavez, as the director of Migrant Education for San Diego County. But one day De la Vega was asked to meet her at a mall. When she arrived, Chavez was in tears, mourning the death of her brother of diabetes at the age of 38.

At that moment, Chavez vowed to do something to stop a disease that had caused a lot of suffering in her family. That moment was also the beginning of De la Vega's moving journey with these farm workers. Her stories, which won New American Media's top award for a health care story, are written with intimate, tender insights that also come across in a video that De la Vega produced about the experience.

De la Vega took a personal approach to reporting on Chavez's project. She volunteered to help with the program as a journalist after meeting Chavez while working on a different story. She gave up her free time to follow participants' progress through a program that includes classes in nutrition, exercise and self-esteem.

"I learned that with obesity there is a lot of emotional pain. In the cases of those immigrants, they missed their families, their country and their food. Many of them live with the anxiety of not having a green card in America," said de la Vega.

Monica Navarro is a former California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow and a reporter and anchor with 26 years in the business. Her approach to community health stories, like de la Vega's, relies on her personal touch.

"You have to demonstrate how sensitive you are about a topic. Even more so when you are talking with a little girl (about being overweight), because she's starting to feel the pressure of the vanity of this world and the meaning of beauty -- to be thin," said Navarro.

Navarro's story, "El Peso de la Obesidad," or "The Weight of Obesity," focused on the famous Tejano singers Raulito and Emilio Navairo. Faced with the alarming rates of obesity and diabetes in her community, Navarro said she knew she would need to work hard to "get people to feel connected to a very serious, very important, but very boring topic." So she decided to interview a celebrity.

Putting such a well-known performer in front of the camera to talk about his illness was invaluable to Navarro's story. But it wasn't easy. Emilio Navairo, who is overweight and diabetic, cancelled on Navarro four times before agreeing to the interview. He "finally accepted and he opened his heart," said Navarro.

Once that happened, "we could show our audience that anybody can have this illness and anybody, even people in the entertainment world, can be in the battle of the bulges," she said.

Navarro grounded the personal stories in her series with research and advised other broadcasters not just to seek out diabetes experts, but to be sure to get "the best ones." In San Antonio, that meant highlighting the work of Dr. Robert Trevino, whose book "Forgotten Children" explores how education and health agencies in Texas too often have worked against proven school-based diabetes prevention programs.

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