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Indian teen from Norman tells Senate panel about her efforts on diabetes

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Actor Wes Studi, a Cherokee, and Caitlin Baker, a Muscogee Creek member from Norman, are shown after a June 30 hearing in Washington on diabetes research. Photo by Chris Casteel, The Oklahoman

WASHINGTON, D.C.  – Caitlin Baker has seen her American Indian peers accept diabetes as inevitable, and she has seen them fight against it by raising money for a jogging trail. Baker is more of the jogging trail type. Much more.

A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and a competitive swimmer, the 16-year-old Norman resident has traveled to several states to encourage other Indian youths to break the cycle of a disease that has ravaged Indian country. American Indians are twice as likely as the general population to get the disease and three times as likely to die from it. In some tribal communities, the rate of diabetes tops 60 percent.

“My message is prevention,” Baker told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last week. “I feel that my generation has been raised with the continual message that diabetes is inevitable. They tell me that they know they will get it eventually because their parents, grandparents and other family members have diabetes. This feeling of inevitability can cause them to not take prevention seriously.”

Another American Indian and native Oklahoman, actor Wes Studi, told the committee, “I think the real disaster of the whole thing is it’s so accepted as a fact of life … We need to get the idea out that, no, it is not an acceptable thing.”

Studi, a Cherokee who appeared in “Avatar,” “Dances with Wolves.” and other films, was among those on Capitol Hill urging the Senate panel to extend the Special Diabetes Program, a two-part research initiative that focuses on Type 1 diabetes and in the overall population and Type 2 diabetes among Indians and Alaska Natives. “It has allowed tribal communities to implement a wide range of strategies to address the burden of diabetes in a manner that is most effective and culturally appropriate for our diverse and unique communities,” Studi said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 10 percent of the Oklahoma population had diabetes in 2008 – 276,000 people. Direct and indirect costs of the disease in the state in 2007 neared $1.9 billion.

The Special Diabetes Program, set to expire next year, has led to several breakthroughs in delaying the onset of the disease and in reducing the risk of serious complications, said Sen. Byron Dorgan, the chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee. Dorgan, D-N.D., has written legislation to extend the program. He said he has 60 senators as co-sponsors.

Gary Hall, a U.S. swimmer who won medals in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympic Games, told the Senate panel that he was diagnosed with Type I diabetes in 1999 but was determined to prove he could triumph in his sport with the disease. Still, he said, diabetes has taken a toll on his body. He described it as “death by thousands and thousands and thousands of injections and finger pricks.” And he urged the panel to keep the Special Diabetes Program alive. “Any lapse in funds would disrupt research that provides hope for all of us,” Hall said.

Hall’s disease, Type 1, is thought to be caused by genetic and environmental factors. Type 2 diabetes, which has been linked to lifestyle and diet, is the one that has become what many consider an epidemic in the general population and Indian country.

Melvina McCabe, a Navajo physician and president of the Association of American Indian Physicians, based in Oklahoma City, said weight loss and exercise “remain the mainstay in diabetes prevention.” For every kilogram of weight lost, she said, there is a 16 percent decrease in diabetes risk. The Special Diabetes Program has spawned community walking and running programs, weight management and school-age physical activity and television watching reduction programs, she said.

Baker, the teenage activist from Norman, urged senators to adopt a new program: listening to kids. “I have been in communities where youth have asked for simple things like a say in their lunch menus, a soccer field, a pool, to have drinking and smoking banned in their public parks,” she said. “These are what youth want. Involve your kids; let them have ownership of healthy changes being made in their community.”