December 17, 2010 / 3:35 PM / 8 years ago

Iraqi refugees match Californians in obesity rates

LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - Iraqi refugees newly arrived in the United States are exhibiting high rates of chronic health conditions, including the same prevalence of obesity as Californians, government researchers reported.

Iraqis represent the largest group of refugees resettling in the United States, accounting for 28,000 arrivals during the past two years — or 21 percent of the total — with nearly a quarter going to California, the most for any other state.

The overwhelming majority of those have settled in San Diego County, where health screenings of 5,100 newly arrived Iraqis were reviewed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Among the more noteworthy findings presented in the CDC’s latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report was the prevalence of non-infectious, chronic medical problems that could lead to serious illness among the refugees.

Nearly one in four screened adults was classified as obese, about the same rate as among California adults, the study found. More than 15 percent of adults were diagnosed with high blood pressure, and almost 40 percent of those 40 years or older had high cholesterol levels.

The findings were supported by outside data from a 2009 survey of Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria that found 41 percent to 51 percent of adult Iraqis reported a diagnosis of chronic illness such as hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, authors of the CDC review said.

Refugee medical screenings traditionally focus primarily on infectious illnesses such as tuberculosis to help public health authorities curb the spread of disease from new arrivals.

In the case of Iraqis resettled in California, they registered high rates of latent tuberculosis infection among their elderly, found in over half and comparable to those in refugee groups from other countries.

But the prevalence of culture-confirmed TB cases among all new Iraqi refugees was much lower than those in recently resettled populations from other countries, the study found. The same was true for chronic hepatitis B virus infection.

The researchers suggested Iraqi refugees may differ from some groups displaced from developing nations because Iraq is a largely middle-income country whose most common chronic health problems more closely mirror those in the United States.

The Iraqis “appear to have a mixed health profile combining some of the infectious diseases seen in developing countries (TB) with some of the chronic diseases more commonly seen here and in other industrialized countries,” Dr. Tarissa Mitchell, a co-author of the report, wrote in response to an email query.

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