By Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune reporter
January 18, 2012
January is the time for resolutions and as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, Dr. Bechara Choucair is responsible for the wellness goals of an entire city.
The department recently created a new public health agenda called "Healthy Chicago" that identified 12 priorities, including promoting healthy mothers and babies. One of the city's first events was a prenatal health fair Tuesday in the Englewood neighborhood.
Choucair received his medical degree from American University of Beirut and did his family practice residency at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He also earned a master's degree in health care management from the University of Texas at Dallas. He held posts in Rockford and at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, before being appointed commissioner in 2009.
He talked with the Tribune about his desire to transform Chicago into the healthiest city in the nation, starting in the womb.
Q: You are beginning your third year at the helm of the Chicago Department of Public Health. What is your proudest accomplishment and what remains your biggest challenge?
A: I'd say the release of Healthy Chicago priorities. It identifies what we want to accomplish with measurable targets and very specific strategies, which we hope to implement within three to five years. The release of this agenda will allow us to have a much more focused approach to public health. … It's the most aggressive assault our city has ever had. As for biggest challenge, it is closing the gap of racial and ethnic health disparities.
Q: While nutrition is essential to having a healthy baby, what do you tell a poor expectant mom who stretches the budget by buying 10 boxes of macaroni and cheese for the same price as one chicken?
A: When a woman is pregnant she only needs about 300 extra calories a day … so that could be something like almonds or yogurt. Access to healthy and affordable food is very important … and we're working to bring that to mainstream retailers like Walgreens. … We're also identifying corner stores in three communities — Humboldt Park, Englewood and South Chicago — to bring more affordable and healthy options.
Q: You're also stressing folic acid during pregnancy. Why?
A: Taking a multivitamin including folic acid can play a big part in preventing birth defects. Just 400 micrograms of folic acid every day can help prevent birth defects of the brain and spine. For example, 3,000 babies a year are born with spina bifida in the United States. Some 50 to 70 percent of those cases could have been prevented with folic acid intake during pregnancy.
Q: Illinois has a higher-than-average rate of drinking during pregnancy. According to the CDC, about 58 percent of expectant mothers do some drinking, while 18 percent binge drink. Any progress in awareness and preventing alcohol-related neurological disorders?
A: It's all a part of the same agenda, focusing on what you can do before, during and after pregnancy. Are you taking vitamins? Are you at a normal weight? Are you not smoking, drinking or doing drugs? At the end of the day, these are the factors you have control over to get the best possible outcome.
Q: Some of the biggest threats to an infant's health come with being born to mothers who are poor and young. Any good news when it comes to teen pregnancy?
A: In 2008, about 32 out of 1,000 girls ages 10 to 19 gave birth in Chicago, a 37 percent decline over the previous decade. However, 70 percent of that decrease was in the white population, with only a 38 percent drop in the black and 23 percent in the Hispanic population. So, while we have seen improvement, we have work to do. We received a $19.7 million federal grant to identify where the teen birth rate is high and implement an evidence-based educational campaign in about 30 schools to address those disparities.
Q: What's the purpose of the campaign?
A: It's threefold. 1. Don't get pregnant; 2. If you do get pregnant, get appropriate care. 3. To delay a second pregnancy.
Q. So what do you do for fun?
A. I practice what I preach. I run and do some weights … but I do like the occasional baklava.
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