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Physical growth of black kids yet to catch up

[South Africa] Children affected by HIV/Aids.
There is a need to scale up treatment for positive children (IRIN)

Despite socioeconomic improvements over the past decade, the growth and development of black South African children continues to lag behind that of their white peers, a recent study has found.

Research from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom looked at data from more than 3,000 children born in Soweto and Johannesburg in 1990. While most (79 percent) of the children in the study were black, 12 percent were of mixed race, 6 percent were white and 3 percent were Indian.

The findings showed that the growth of white children not only surpassed the development of non-white children, but differences that existed at birth and during infancy had not diminished in childhood and early adolescence.

The paper, 'Physical Growth in a Transitional Economy: The Aftermath of South African Apartheid', noted that under apartheid the government spent five times more on healthcare for whites than for blacks. During the 1980s, 13 'well-baby clinics' supported the 1.5 million black residents of Soweto, while almost 70 clinics supported a similar sized white population in Johannesburg.

At the start of the study the children's birth weights show a gradation, with white children being the heaviest at 3,223 g, followed by black (3,079 g), coloured (3,023 g) and Indian children (2,895 g).

"Surprisingly, differences in height and weight between whites and non-whites increased over time, following [political] transition," the study notes.

It was expected that legislation introduced in the early 1990s to improve the quality of life of the previously disadvantaged, including free healthcare for children under five years of age, would have had an effect on the growth of these children.

According to the researchers, social policies aimed at bolstering health and nutritional care for non-white children had not yet paid off. The one positive trend was an increase in the height of non-white girls by approximately 5 to 10 cm during the period under review. In contrast, there had been no change in the height of white girls.

An emerging concern was a change in dietary habits in recent years as a growing number of South Africans moved to a high-fat, low-fibre diet, characterised by the intake of 'fast foods'. The study warned that this had produced a number of factors that were already making themselves apparent.

"Children born small in developing countries, such as South Africa, are at risk of stunting during infancy," the study noted. In the survey group, one in five children were stunted - a sign of persistent poor health and nutrition during infancy. Recent research has linked stunting in childhood with obesity in older life, due to the phenomenon of 'catch-up growth', which increases susceptibility to type II diabetes.

Overall the research points out that, while political changes have been rapid since the end of apartheid, economic and social changes have been more gradual.

"The fact that changes at national and community level do not, as yet, result in improved growth status may indicate the need to create vectors of change that lead to individual as well as community upliftment. Uncontrolled transition and the adoption of 'western' lifestyles do not necessarily presage improved health and well being in children and indeed may bring with them the risk of increased prevalence of chronic diseases during childhood," the study concluded.

Full report: www.id21.org

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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