From drastic cuts in federal programs to proposals to reduce the federal workforce, the influence in Congress of those seeking to undermine the Federal Government is growing. But last week, I spent a morning exploring firsthand an innovative program that flies in the face of this anti-government sentiment. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Director Dr. Tom Frieden and members of his staff led me on a tour of their mobile exam center, currently parked in Northern Virginia, which travels across the country collecting data for what’s known as the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES).
Each year, NHANES compiles data from a nationally representative sample of about 5,000 people from 15 counties across the U.S. The doctors traveling in the mobile exam center look at the diets, exercise regime, health risk factors, and disease of those surveyed. The findings are then aggregated, giving a more complete picture of our nation’s health, prevalence of major diseases and risk factors associated with them. The results are then used by federal agencies like the USDA, EPA, and FDA to study environmental influences on public health; chart and track the prevalence of diseases like asthma and diabetes; and provide information on changing health needs across the nation so we can make the appropriate public policy decisions that will lead to a healthier, more productive, happier society.
Since its creation in the 1960’s, the NHANES program has studied the correlation between smoking and high blood pressure, sugary and fattening diets with diabetes, and explored many other previously uncharted, critical health issues we consider conventional wisdom today. The program has been so successful that the study serves as a model program for countries around the world. Their findings serve as benchmarks for improvements in public health. Some of their latest findings include:
• 23% of adults aged 20-64 have hypertension
• 23% of adults aged 20-64 have high cholesterol, and only 33% of this group have it under control
• The cadmium found in cigarettes contributes to kidney failure
• Roughly one-third of the population has insufficient vitamin D
• Smoking among adults aged 18 and over declined by more than 4% from 1997-2009.
Our country’s health issues have shifted over time as diets change and what defines healthy living evolves. In order to track, prevent and treat widespread disease and raise awareness of the changing public health needs, our doctors and medical organizations depend upon the accurate information federal programs such as NHANES provides. It is the conduit for information experts need to improve the lives of millions of Americans.
At a time when too much attention is focused on the loudest voices in the market place of ideas which tend to decry public service and the Federal Government’s work, it’s important to highlight program’s such as NHANES, which demonstrates the many kinds of vital work being done by the Federal Government every day. We should be investing in these worthwhile federal programs, rather than disparaging them.
Rep. James Moran (D) is Virginia’s 8th Congressional District Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.