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Alaskans still struggle to stay healthy Alaska fell short on all but one of its leading health care goals for the decade, state health department officials said Friday. The rates for suicide, obesity and infant deaths have instead increased over the past 10 years, planner Alice Rarig told attendees of a biennial rural health conference in Anchorage. Other good news? Of 17 leading health indicators Rarig highlighted Friday, Alaska improved in nine categories. The number of people dying in car crashes is on the decline. Murder is down statewide and, although kids are still having as much sex as they did in 1999, more are using condoms. Adapting similar federal goals, the state Health Department in 2001 published what it called "ambitious but achievable targets" for 2010. A statewide council approved the goals. "We didn't want to be wimping around and say, well, let's see what we can achieve. We wanted to be idealistic about it," Rarig said of the goal-setting a decade ago. But the effort did not include strategies for actually meeting the goals, said Rarig, who works for the state section of Health Planning and Systems Development. The initiative came toward the end of Gov. Tony Knowles' second and final term as governor, and organizers didn't want to suggest policies that the next governor might throw out, Rarig told an audience of about 30 people at the rural health conference. "We ran into politics." In 1999, 34 percent of high school students said they had smoked in the past 30 days, Rarig reported. That figure dropped to 17 percent in 2009. Increasing cigarette taxes, anti-smoking advertising and smoking bans may have pushed kids away from the habit, said Andrea Fenaughty, deputy section chief for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Meantime, obesity has become one of the state's most expensive health problems, Public Health Director Ward Hurlburt told conference-goers Friday. Complications such as diabetes and high blood pressure generate about $465 million in medical bills a year in Alaska, he said. "That has well-eclipsed the cost of smoking-related problems," Hurlburt said. Hurlburt also told the group that Alaska immunized 82 percent of seniors against the seasonal flu in 2009 and 2010, the highest rate of any state according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Speaking to rural health care providers, Rarig highlighted some problems by region. Motor vehicle accident deaths -- including snowmachine and ATV crashes -- are highest in the Northwest while infant death rates are highest in Southwest Alaska. Southcentral, including Anchorage and Mat-Su, has the highest rate of drug-induced deaths, she reported. The effort to begin crafting another set of health goals for 2020 could begin this fall, though there's no money in the state budget to pay for the work, Rarig said.

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