A mother blowing cigarette smoke in a child’s face. Picture: Reuters

One in five South African babies surveyed in two townships have the same levels of nicotine in their system as active smokers.

Recent research by the Drakenstein Child Health Study shows that infants are facing the consequences of high smoking rates among pregnant women, including the risk of being born underweight and developing lung problems like asthma.

Of the 1 065 newborns that were checked for exposure to environmental tobacco smoke in the Drakenstein study, an alarming 18 percent had traces of nicotine in their systems equal to that of an active smoker. The researchers found that this reduced at six to 10 weeks of life to levels found in passive smokers: those in close proximity to people who smoke.

Smoking among pregnant women has been labelled by Dr Nhlanhla Dlamini, chief director for Child and School Health at the Department of Health, as an “emergency”.

“If you are talking to a childbearing woman about smoking, you tell them about getting lung cancer, or you may get cancer of the throat, that is something that will happen in the future. When you are pregnant smoking is affecting you right now. It's affecting the baby right now. It will cause the baby not to reach the full size it is supposed to,” she said speaking at the World Conference on Tobacco or Health which took place in Cape Town this month.

READ: Secondhand smoking kills more women than men

According to the study, exposure to smoke in the womb not only causes higher rates of early-life respiratory infections. It has also been associated with developing serious health issues in adulthood including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The study followed a group of mothers in Paarl during their third trimester of pregnancy and infants in the first four-to-six weeks of life that were tested for early life smoke exposure. Participants came from low socio-economic communities of Mbekweni, a predominantly black township, and Newman, a predominantly coloured township. 

The study found that 325 (32%) of 1 001 mothers who completed the antenatal assessment were active smokers and 446 (45%) were exposed to tobacco smoke. There was a significantly higher smoking prevalence in coloured mothers than in black African mothers.

One of the researchers, Dr Aneesa Vanker, said that while there had been other studies on the effects of antenatal smoke exposure in South Africa, theirs was the first on the continent focusing on the effects of toluene on unborn babies and infants.

“Toluene is a volatile organic compound. We found no other studies that showed that toluene was associated with respiratory tract infections. This was the first study to describe these effects.”

The research, which took place over three years, uncovered shocking levels of babies being exposed to environmental tobacco smoke. This is despite the fact that South Africa now has a 95% booking rate for antenatal care visits, according to Dlamini.

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