WESLACO, RGV – New data collated from two different sources shows that diabetes is declining slightly in the Rio Grande Valley, even though it is still increasing in Texas as a whole.

Dr. Belinda Reininger, regional dean of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health in Brownsville, summarized the findings at an event hosted by the nonprofit group, Unidos Contra La Diabetes.

The event, which brought together public health officials from across the Valley, was held at the UTRGV Center for Innovation & Commercialization in Weslaco.

“We are really excited that Unidos Contra la Diabetes has put together a report summarizing data about not only the Rio Grande Valley but our comparison to the state of Texas,” Reininger told the Rio Grande Guardian, during the event.

Dr. Belinda Reininger

“The report uses multiple data sources and it is showing that while the diabetes rates in the state of Texas are increasing, in the Rio Grande Valley the rates and the trend on diabetes is starting to not only flatten out but to tip down. So, we are showing some improvement in our rates of diabetes.”

Asked about the two sources of data, Reininger explained that one is obtained at the federal level and one at the local level.

“The Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance (BRFS) survey is a federally funded initiative that happens across the country, including Texas. And, it looks specifically at the data for the counties in our region,” Reininger said.

“The other is a unique source of data that only the Valley has. It is the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort data. This data is collected in a study led by Dr. Fisher-Hoch and Dr. McCormick with the UT School of Public Health. It is collected from individuals who are Hispanic, who live in our community and the methodology includes going door to door and asking people to participate in this study and then following those people over time.”

Dr. Susan P. Fisher-Hoch is a British-born infectious disease specialist who has made major contributions to the understanding of Legionnaires’ disease and Lassa fever. Dr. Joseph B. McCormick is a physician, scientist, and educator. 

The UT School of Public Health points out that the Cameron County Hispanic Cohort (CCHC) is a cohort of Mexican Americans established in 2004 that currently numbers 4,584 individuals living on the Texas-Mexico border. The CCHC has been funded by the National Institute for Minority Health Disparities. Dr. Fisher-Hoch, along with Dr. McCormick, has directed, developed, and expanded the cohort over 14 years. The cohort provides a low income, homogenous ethnic population with high health risk which is largely missing from large national cohorts.

“What is nice about having these two complimentary data sources is, the BRFS is a telephone-based source, with the surveyor asking questions over the phone to individuals in the Valley and across the country,” Reininger said. “The CCHC involves going into homes, asking people to come into a clinical setting. Not only are questions asked but we gather information from blood work and clinical exams. It is a much more intensive process.”

Reininger said she was thrilled with the report’s findings. “Both of these data sources are showing this flattening and declining trend in diabetes in the Valley.  Across the state we see a different trend line. It gives us more more confidence that these data in fact are true – that we are becoming healthier in the Valley.”

Reininger was quick to point out that while diabetes rates are declining in the Valley, they are still significantly higher than across the state as a whole.

“We are still showing that our overall rates of diabetes are higher than the state average. So, we do not celebrate and pack our bags and say we are done. That is not the message at all. In fact, it’s just saying that what we are doing is starting to make a difference but we do have a long way to go,” Reininger said.

“We are still a good 12 points above the state in terms of the prevalence of diabetes. The state of Texas is showing about an 11.5 percent of the population in the state has diabetes, that has that diagnosis. For the Valley, based on the BRFS, it is 14.4 percent, but based on that (local) cohort, again, where we are getting the blood work documented, it is 24.9 percent. So, we still have a lot more disease. Our community bears the burden of more disease than the state. So, we have work to do.”

Asked why the situation is improving in the Valley, Reininger said: 

“It is not one thing. It is a group of clinics, communities, nonprofits, organizations coming together and building complementary strategies. So, what does that mean? It means that when we see people in different locations, that we are able to start identifying the risk factors, doing screenings to make sure people know they have the disease but, importantly, are making the referrals to programs to help them address the pre-conditions, such as obesity as a major driver.”

Reininger said that when she and her team see a new diagnosis of hyper-tension or high cholesterol in a patient, alongside existing obesity, they start seeing people become diabetic. 

“But, when we know early, we can prevent that. But, it takes multiple locations. People have to hear that message in multiple ways. They have to have a resource to go to for assistance,” she said. 

Reininger said it is also “incredibly important” to have policy and environmental changes that help people become healthier. 

“When we have better opportunities for trails; when we have better opportunities to ride our bikes to work, to walk after work, and we feel safe, we get more physically fit. We are reducing the obesity and thus we are preventing diabetes. But, it is all of this in conjunction,” Reininger said.

“What it is not is one organization did a little something and we see these population changes. What we are seeing is lots of organizations starting to think and do preventative activities, preventative policies, preventative programs and now we are seeing the benefits in terms of the population being healthier.”

Asked if one could paraphrase those remarks by saying there is no silver bullet for eliminating diabetes, Reininger agreed.

“If anything, what we are trying to do is have buck shot. We want that everywhere you go you are seeing messages about health, that you are able to make choices that are healthier,” Reininger said.

“It is a buck shot approach where we are having policies aligned, programs aligned, preventative strategies aligned, risk assessment strategies aligned so that everywhere we go, we start knowing that diabetes is preventable and that we are changing behaviors to support that.”

Editor’s Note: The above news story is the first in a four-part series based on a major diabetes forum hosted by Unidos Contra La Diabetes in Weslaco. Part Two, featuring the analysis of Dr. Rose Gowen of Brownsville, will appear in tomorrow’s edition.