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Comal County Survey Will Help Officials Study Nutrition And Health Trends

Louisa Jonas
Texas Public Radio

Workers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are knocking on doors in Comal County.  They’re asking residents to participate in a study that could tell us more about the link between nutrition and health. Texas Public Radio’s Louisa Jonas reports some who volunteer are also getting an added benefit- some free medical exams.

The study has two parts. A door-to-door nutritional survey where workers with the Centers for Disease Control aim to interview 1,000 Comal County participants. They’re asking whether people drink nonfat, 2 percent or whole milk, whether they’ve had shellfish in the past seven days, or what type of sugary beverages they drink—questions like that.

The second part includes $4,000 worth of free medical and dental exams for about 350 volunteers.  

Tatiana Nwankwo is a public health advisor at the Centers for Disease Control. She says the study is one of a kind in how it benefits the participants, some of whom do not have health insurance.

"We do an interview in your house, and then you get physical measurements. So the person who is lucky enough to participate in our survey learns about their health," Nwankwo says. "There’s no way that the measurements and tests performed that get done in our mobile examination center, they won’t get in their doctor’s office, they won’t get in their routine physical exam."

Nwankwo says the information collected during eight weeks in Comal County will be combined with information collected over two years in counties across the country.

Jacque DeMatteis, the study manager in Comal County, says the CDC is looking for trends by examining survey information and real medical data at the same time.

"If someone does phlebotomy, there would be all sorts of assays available from your blood," DeMattheis says. "All of that individual information, it’s probably going to tie in with the dietary interview that we do. We do a 24 hour recall of what you’ve consumed in the 24 hour period prior to coming. And as an example, if your blood shows that you have a very high mercury level, if you said that you eat a lot of fish. That would not be unusual."

DeMattheis says the CDC, has been conducting these surveys for 50 years and there have been countless findings that have had an impact on public health. They discovered the link between low folic acid in pregnant women and birth defects. Now doctors recommend folic acid as part of prenatal care. They found the relationship between exposure to lead and illness.

"So the data that we’re collecting led everyone to the understanding that lead is a very negative thing to have in the body and in our atmosphere," DeMattheis says. "So there’s no lead in gasoline anymore. It’s been removed from paint. And we now test for it so if people are in an older home-- you can identity that.

The CDC will be monitoring for risk factors linked to major diseases like cardiovascular disease; diabetes; infectious illness; HIV.

The survey is very confidential.  Organizers declined to let us speak with participants or go along as they knocked on doors.

In fact, some Comal residents like Jennifer Taylor, at a grocery store in New Braunfels, weren’t aware of the survey.  She says offering the free health exams, even to the insured, is important since health care is expensive. And she likes the idea of a study that focuses on nutrition.

"I think in this day and age it’s necessary, as we get further and further away from domesticity, shall we say," Taylor says. "I think in the old days, a lot of people grew up on a farm or were closer to farms and understood nutrition better."

Danielle Larsen didn’t know about the survey either. She’s more on the fence.

"I don’t know—I guess it’s fine," Larsen says. "It would depend on the exact questions. I can be a kind of private person. It depends on what the main goal is on why they’d want to know such intrusive information.

DeMatteis and Nwankwo, from the CDC, say the main goal is to learn about nutrition and health county by county, state by state, so all Americans can benefit.