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Central Valley Hmong Devastated by Diabetes

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, November 30, 2011

(sound of Mr. Lo writing on billboard)

Fifty-five year old Chia Chao Lo sits in front of a window in his rural home outside of Fresno. He's a thin, small man in a camouflage cap. He's teaching math to his 11-year old adopted daughter.

(sound of Mr. Lo teaching)

Mr. Lo is a Hmong refugee from Laos. He was enlisted to fight with U.S forces during the Vietnam war. His son, Fi Dan Lo, helps translate his story.

FI DAN LO (for MR. LO): "They heard that in America there were really good opportunities for achievement or education…. so he wanted to come first for that and secondly he wanted to come to escape the communists."

There are now almost a quarter of a million Hmong people living in the United States. Many of them in California's Central Valley.  Mr. Lo says when he came here, he started consuming things he didn't have back in Asia. 

FI DAN LO (for MR. LO): "The food here, they make it too good. There's a lot of fat in the meats they have here. The food, they use preservatives for the food…He says that once they came here, those foods taste way better than what they had in Laos so they consumed more, and they also consumed more sweets like sugary drinks."

Mr. Lo says back in Laos, he walked a lot. But here, everyone drives everywhere. After 10 years of living in the U.S., Mr. Lo was diagnosed with diabetes, which can be caused in part by lack of exercise.

Complications of the disease took his eye and caused kidney failure. Now with the help of his wife, he checks his blood sugar daily.

MRS. LO: 181.

MR. LO: 181? Ohh, high.
MRS. LO: Did you take your pill?
MR. LO: Not yet.
MRS. LO: See?
...and Mr. Lo needs dialysis four times a day. Many Hmong say they didn't know diabetes back in Asia.

HOOD: "American culture is toxic to your health."

Dr. Rodney Hood is a San-Diego based physician, and an expert on demographic health disparities.

HOOD: "Certain ethnic populations when they first come to the United States actually have better health outcomes and better health status that gets worse the longer they stay."

Dr. Hood says genetics are a part of developing diabetes, but lifestyle and environment complicated by conditions of poverty are more significant factors.

FI DAN LO: "If you want to treat somebody with diabetes then, really, your environment has to change and it starts with your family."

Fi Dan Lo works at the Sacramento's Hmong Women's Heritage Association, where he helped conduct diabetes research in the immigrant population.

Of 136 people surveyed, he said as many as 20% had diabetes. That's about wice the rate as in the overall population in the U.S.

He said their research showed the need for health education, and safe social places.

FI DAN LO: A lot of Hmong people are economically disadvantaged and they can't really change their eating habits or they live in unsafe places where they can't go out and just exercise.

Fi Dan is working to create culturally relevant care and healthy spaces through the Hmong Association. In late October, he and a coworker taught diabetes basics to 20 older Hmong. They used the English word for exercise - there's no equivalent in the Hmong language.

FI DAN LO: I didn't expect that response from the Hmong community because they're generally really, really shy. So they actually came out of their shell…

An independent health educator soon had them all on their feet, lifting arms and legs to music.

(clapping and laughter)

Fi Dan joined them. There was a lot of laughter.

(clapping and laughter)

He says this is the first time people here have been taught about diabetes, and he hopes it won't be the last time they hear the health educators' words.

FI DAN LO: Don't let diabetes control your life, you control yourself. So don't let diabetes control your life.

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