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Polynesians target diabetes crisis

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We’ve realized that (diabetes and obesity) really is an epidemic and are urgent health issues. We’re trying new, creative ways to get whole families involved in becoming healthier. – Jake Fitisemanu

SALT LAKE CITY — When Penny Maumau crossed the finish line of the inaugural MANA 5K walk-run on Sautrday, she felt a great sense of accomplishment. Not just for herself, but for her family and the others who were taking control of their lives and working to improve their health.

Three months ago she took a physical and was told by her doctor that she was at high risk for diabetes and high blood pressure. Knowing her family history and wanting to improve her own health, the 49-year old mother and grandmother made the decision to get healthier.

“When I went, it was confirmation that I need to choose a better lifestyle,” she said. About 10 family members have been diagnosed with diabetes, the native New Zealander explained, which is a big reason why she is trying to avoid becoming the next in her clan to face diabetes.

“I’ve been working out cross training … and changed my diet by cutting sugar, calories, fat and have lost almost 36 pounds,” she said.

Maumau’s plight was shared by many at the event and many more in the Polynesian community.

Samoana Matagi enjoys running and being fit, but he has been directly affected by the devastating effects of diabetes. His mother was diagnosed with the disease at age 40 and passed away in February at age 48 due to complications from the disease.

He said his participation in the event was partly to honor her memory as well as to promote awareness so that others don't have to suffer the same fate.

"When I run, I think about my mom a lot," he said. "And when I eat, I'm trying to cut back on things like sugars and (other high calories foods)."

He said he hopes the message of better health resonates among fellow members of the area's Polynesian community.

According to the Utah Department of Health, Pacific Islanders have the highest diabetes-related death rate in the state. In 2011, Pacific Islanders had the highest infant mortality rate, a diabetes rate that was twice as high as the rest of the state, and eight out of ten Pacific Islanders in Utah were overweight or obese, explained Jake Fitisemanu.

Pacific Islander communities want to change this, he said.

“When we look at (the situation), and start counting the cases of diabetes and the number of amputations because of diabetic neuropathy or how many people can’t move or their lifestyle is impacted because of how big they are, it really hits home,” he said.

Fitisemanu explained that the effort is “to get people out of their comfort zone.”

“We’ve realized that (diabetes and obesity) really is an epidemic and are urgent health issues,” he said. “We’re trying new, creative ways to get whole families involved in becoming healthier.”

The Queen Center partnered with the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition and corporate sponsors to organize the event with a focus on Utah Pacific Islander families and the major health problems that afflict them.

“We thought it would be a great idea to try something new for our community, to get people moving and enjoying physical activities together as families,” said Joyce AhYou of the Queen Center — a non-profit organization serving the local Pacific Islander community providing education about health disparities and tobacco awareness.

“Mana” is a Polynesian word that means power, strength, spirit, and vitality. Since founding the MANA Fitness Challenge in 2011, the Queen Center has also coined the word MANA as an acronym for their community-based health initiative — Movement, Awareness, Nutrition, Action.

Nearly 200 people registered for the free event that included health information booths covering diabetes, cancer, maternal and infant health and other important health topics critical to the Polynesian community.

“It’s about time that we as a people start realizing that we are in denial about the serious health problems we face as Pacific Islanders,” said organizer Tufui Taukei‘aho. “The MANA 5K once a year won’t solve all our issues, but it’s a great start to get families and neighborhoods and congregations moving together toward solutions.”

E-mail: jlee@deseretnews.com

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