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Study finds children's stunting linked to mothers' income

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One in three boys and one in four girls under the age of 5 in South Africa are considered short for their age, or stunted.

These statistics are contained in the South Africa Demographic and Health Survey 2016 (SADHS 2016) released this week.

The national household survey – released by Statistician-General Pali Lehlola – collected a wide range of health data by way of face-to-face interviews, from over 11000 households around the country over a period of a year.

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One in three boys and one in four girls under the age of 5 in SA are considered short for their age, or stunted. Picture: Ziphozonke Lushaba

A total of 2024 children under 5 were eligible for weight and height measurements to determine their nutritional status.

The survey was a partnership between the Health Department, Statistics SA and the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC).

According to the findings, “stunting is higher among male children (30%) than among female children (25%)”.

And a mother’s education and level of wealth are both “inversely related” to stunting levels.

In other words, the more money the mother earns, the less chance of the child being stunted in growth.

Nutrition was found to improve with higher levels of income as it could be afforded.

According to the survey, stunting (being short for one’s age) remains a national concern, with 27% of children displaying signs of chronic malnourishment.

“Prevalence of stunting generally increases with age from 8 months to 23 months before declining by the end of the third year of life (35 months).

"Children aged 18-23 months have the highest proportion of severe stunting (20%).

“This age group also has the highest proportion of underweight children (10%)”, the survey showed.

Also of concern was that overall 3% of the children surveyed were considered “wasted” – a condition reflecting acute or recent nutritional deficits.

This is in contrast to 13% of children who were found to be overweight – a sign of over nutrition.

“The prevalence of overweight children is more than twice the global average of 6.1%”, the survey stated, citing global research statistics.

The proportion of children who were found to be underweight ranged by province, from a low of 3% in the Eastern Cape to a high of 13% in North West.

While the prevalence of stunting raises concern, some encouraging statistics from the survey showed an overall decline in the under-5 mortality and the infant mortality rates, with 42 deaths and 35 deaths per 1000 live births, respectively, for the 5 years preceding the survey.

The survey also showed that the neonatal mortality rate has dropped to 21 deaths per 1000 live births, accounting for about half of under-5 deaths.

“Although we have observed a significant increase in exclusive breastfeeding from 8% in 2003 to 32% in 2016, stunting prevalence remains extremely disturbing given the long-term consequences on health and development of children,” SAMRC medical director and chief specialist scientist Professor Ali Dhansay said.

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