Undernutrition remains a major problem among South African children. Yet research into their current nutritional status doesn't seem to be a national priority.
Lack of data hampers nutrition intervention
"We are way overdue for a national nutrition survey of children," Prof Linda Richter of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) told media and others on Wednesday at a collaborative presentation by the HSRC's Child, Youth, Family and Social Development programme and the University of Cape Town's (UCT) Children's Institute.
Richter was commenting on the fact that South Africa's latest data on childhood nutrition dates back to 1999. This is worrying in view of the light that urgent, targeted steps are needed to address the problem of undernutrition in this country.
Richter explained that insufficient nutrition in pregnancy and the first two years of life is particularly problematic as this leads to stunting. Stunting, in turn, is associated with shorter adult height, lower attained schooling, reduced adult income, offspring of lower birth weight, and increased risk for chronic diseases of lifestyle. It goes without saying that addressing the issue of stunting could have important socio-economic implications.
In 1999, 23.8% of South African children between the ages of 12 and 71 months were stunted. More recent data isn't available, and there seems to be no immediate plan to do the necessary research. The responsibility for this lies jointly with the Department of Health and the HSRC's Child, Youth, Family and Social Development programme.
Infant feeding a problem
Another key issue that was raised at the meeting is that of poor infant-feeding practices – a problem that also needs to be addressed if stunting is to be alleviated.
According to the 2003 South Africa Demographic and Health Survey, only 10% of infants under the age of three months are being exclusively breastfed – a situation which puts babies at great risk of undernutrition and consequent stunting.
While it is widely accepted that exclusive breastfeeding during the first four to six months of life is the best way to ensure adequate nutrition, many mothers still believe in feeding their babies formula milk. This carries an increased risk of death associated with malnutrition and infectious diseases other than HIV.
While the message of "breast is best" has reached more mothers in recent years, the HIV/Aids pandemic – and the risk of mother-to-child transmission – has made the situation more complicated, according to Prof Bev Draper from the UCT Children's Institute.
What makes matters worse is that many mothers don't know that mixed feeding (i.e. breast as well as formula feeding) in the first three months of life puts their babies at greater risk than breastfeeding alone.
Draper believes that the solution is to guide mothers according to their individual circumstances.
- (Carine van Rooyen, Health24, February 2008)
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