02 November 2007

SA kids' health in tatters

A new research report has revealed some shocking facts about the health of our children and identified four major factors that place our youth at risk.

A new research report called The Healthy Active Kids SA Report Card conducted by Discovery Vitality and the Sport Science Institute of South Africa (SISSA), has revealed some shocking facts about the health of our children and identified four major factors that place our youth at risk.

Those factors are tobacco use, poor diet, lack of physical activity and obesity.

And the research, that assessed the health habits of school kids nationwide, gave South African children a C- for their overall health in 2007.

Allan Pollard, CEO of Discovery Vitality says the research served as a "snapshot" of the state of health of SA’s kids and serves to highlight health problems while proposing constructive ways of preventing them.

“The health and wellbeing of South Africa's children is fundamental to the future health of our nation.

“We want to engage with parents and children about these lifestyle choices and provide them with a better understanding of the impact these factors have on their future health.”

Grades were awarded to different areas of concern as follows:

Tobacco use D
Physical inactivity levels C-
Overweight, obesity C
Stunting D-
Unhealthy eating D
School tuck shops, vendors & feeding schemes D

Discovery Vitality and the SISSA recently gathered together nine scientists from six tertiary institutions.

“This is not only about research; we also wanted to identify challenges to prevent chronic disease for the next generation, identify the behaviours and determinants associated with these challenges and develop practical interventions,” said Professor Vicki Lambert of MRC/UCT Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine.

“The model on which we based this report card gives Government, NGOs and other stakeholders the opportunity to participate in meeting the challenges head on.”

According to the report, the following issues need to be addressed to ensure healthier youth:

Tobacco use - Grade: D
South African adolescents have the highest reported smoking prevalence amongst African health surveys.

  • 30% have smoked a cigarette in their lifetime
  • 21% are current smokers (smoked one or more days in the past month),
  • Nearly 7% are frequent smokers (smoke 20 or more days in a month) and
  • 6% smoked their first cigarette before the age of 10.

Legislation to prevent smoking received an A grading. South Africa was the first country in the world to declare nicotine an addictive drug by the Education Ministry. Anti-smoking legislation and taxation, the banning of tobacco advertisements, prohibiting of smoking in public places and health warnings on all cigarette packaging are all effective controls to discourage smoking in children.

Physical inactivity levels – Grade: C-
Physical fitness in South African urban youth is declining. Recent studies suggest that about 40% of youth are getting little or no moderate to vigorous activity each week. Vulnerable groups are girls, aged 16-19 and children from disadvantaged communities.

“There is clear lack of a sports participation culture amongst adolescents. In fact, the most commonly reported leisure time activities is cell phone use,” said Pollard. “An increase of screen time (television, PC’s, console games) adds fuel to the fire. High levels of crime also effect activity levels as the fear for personal safety inhibits the ‘walkability’ in communities.”

Overweight, obesity - Grade: C and stunting – Grade: D-
More than 30% of adolescent girls and nearly 10% of boys are either overweight or obese.

There is also the paradox of obesity coupled with stunting and early nutritional deprivation that is found in our children. In a combined sample of children under the age of nine years old, 17% were overweight or obese and in this same study, stunting was present in 19%.

It was also found that children from rural areas are at greater risk for stunting while those from urban areas run the risk of obesity. Furthermore, the risk for obesity in stunted children was twice as high and there is a potential for long-term health risks.

Unhealthy eating - Grade: D
The report found that children are not eating enough fruit and vegetables but consuming plenty of sugary foods and drinks. Other factors influencing this behaviour are the high cost of healthy foods as well as access, availability and knowledge. Legislation addressing food labels and misleading advertising is in the pipeline and should help to address some of the issues.

Most children are able to identify healthy snacks, but they are twice as likely to bring unhealthy foods from home and 70% of children also make unhealthy choices when buying from the tuck shop. Of concern is that many of the schools rely on these shops as a source of additional funding

Specific short-term recommendations
1. Engaging with adolescents, parents and teachers to explore knowledge, attitudes and practices
2. Development and evaluation of promising interventions focused on barriers to healthy eating, physical activity and tobacco control
3. Recognise that the prevention of chronic disease requires a life-course approach and that early life under nutrition may increase the susceptibility of children to later life risk.
4. Ensuring that the promising legislative initiatives are implemented “on the ground” in a meaningful way, by ongoing monitoring.

Pollard concluded: “We need to create a culture of healthy lifestyles in our children and youth through education and by changing the social norms.

“I believe that this research proves that there are critical areas to be addressed immediately. If government, private sector and communities work together, we can save our children from a chronically sick future.”




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