Forty per cent of obese children and adolescents in a New Zealand study have been found to be at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes in future.
This is one of an alarming list of health risks discovered in the more than 200 Taranaki youngsters aged 4 to 16 in the study, the first in this country to assess the rate of health risks associated with obesity in young people.
"We need to start taking childhood obesity seriously because we have got an epidemic on our hands," said Dr Yvonne Anderson, a Taranaki paediatrician and researcher at Auckland University's Liggins Institute.
A co-author of the study, she said it was of great concern that major health risks were present at such a young age.
Nationally, 11 per cent of children aged 2-14 are obese. The rates are higher in Maori and Pacific children and among those who live in deprived areas. New Zealand has the third largest percentage of overweight and obese children in the OECD after Greece and Italy.
The study is part of an obesity-intervention trial - whose results are not yet available - that involves support from various health workers to help the young people make healthy lifestyle changes. This includes physical activities, cooking and group and family sessions.
Health checks found 75 per cent had inflammatory markers of future heart disease risk, 47 per cent had at least one abnormal liver function result, 43 per cent had an abnormal cholesterol/lipids profile, and 40 per cent had skin changes that indicate a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
"These children are not just carrying a bit of extra weight," said Anderson. "What we've shown is that their bodies are struggling. They have health indicators that can be life-limiting if left unaddressed."
The researchers, whose report is published in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, said the burden of disease they found, if not addressed, "will be likely to have a considerable impact on these children's health and wellbeing, adding unsustainable pressure on NZ's health system."
Anderson said the Government had made a great start with its childhood obesity target, but there was a shortage of treatment services.
"We don't have nationwide access to interventions."
Boyd Swinburn, professor of population nutrition at Auckland University, agreed, saying, "There's a real need for the Government to create referral and management options."
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman's office declined to answer questions about the study. His spokeswoman said nothing had changed in his position on child obesity issues. "I think our position on this has been well documented."
Coleman in October last year announced his childhood obesity plan, including making dealing with child obesity one of his Health Targets.
Under the target, he said that by December next year, "95 per cent of children identified as obese in the B4 School Check will be referred to an appropriate health professional for clinical assessment and family based nutrition, activity and lifestyle interventions."
He said the 22 initiatives in the plan comprise targeted interventions for those who are obese, increased support for those at risk of becoming obese, and broad strategies to make healthier choices easier.
The minister has consistently ruled out imposing a sugary drink tax such as the one introduced by Mexico and several other jurisdictions and sought by many public health and medical experts in New Zealand but opposed by the food and drinks industry.
Swinburn said the Government's Healthy Families scheme running in 10 communities is a valuable programme trying to prevent obesity but the state needed to adopt the World Health Organisation's child obesity prevention recommendations, such as the sugary drinks tax and clamping down on food marketing to children.
Health risks in obese young people
• 75% - signs of inflammation that elevates future heart risks
• 40% - skin changes indicating high risk of future type 2 diabetes
• 47% - abnormal liver function
• 43% - abnormal cholesterol/high triglyceride
• 11% - abnormal blood pressure