Make time for your daughter or she may close herself off to you. Picture: xenia,

Cape Town - Many South African girls are starting to menstruate at the age of nine – and this early onset of puberty could be linked to growth hormones and other chemicals in food.

So says Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi.

Motsoaledi, who addressed MPs in the parliamentary health committee on whether South Africa would achieve the Millennium Development Goals, said in an interview afterwards that the early onset of puberty was a global issue.

“It is linked to diet, to hormones injected into food we eat in the modern diet.”

Asked if he would move to rid South African food of growth hormones and other hormone-disrupting chemicals, Motsoaledi said it was an issue “far beyond me”.

“But it is something the people at the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agricultural Organisation are very aware of. It is one of the modern era issues, very difficult.”

Early puberty was problematic as the rate of infant deaths from premature birth was high in the teenage population, as was the rate of “maternal death” – death of pregnant women. The rate of maternal deaths per 100 000 people had risen in South Africa from 150 in 1998 to 269 in 2010.

Motsoaledi said 36 percent of the maternal deaths were of pregnant teenagers.

“They are not supposed to be pregnant, they are still girls, still babies. Part of the problem is the issue of early menarche, it’s gone down to nine years. That’s out of my hands. There is no policy I can do. If I could, I would say: ‘Start at 18.’ If girls are menstruating at nine, where do you start with family planning?”

Last year there were 89 000 teenage pregnancies, eight percent of all pregnancies.

“We can stop, within one year, 36 percent of maternal deaths by making sure these adolescent girls do not fall pregnant. Either the child will be born premature or they’re going to die.”

Reducing maternal deaths was one of the eight Millennium Development Goals, set by the UN in 2002 as a global blueprint for sustainable development that would help eradicate poverty, hunger and disease, and promoting universal primary education. The target date is 2015.

The Department of Health was responsible for implementing three of the goals: reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating HIV, malaria, TB and other diseases.

The department would achieve the goal of reducing malaria and HIV, and was working across borders to reduce TB. However they were unlikely to achieve the goals of reducing child mortality and maternal deaths.

Motsoaledi said he was poised to launch a “huge family planning programme”, which would include a contraceptive programme.

“Many young people will see they have a chance of saving their lives or preventing pregnancies....We can do this if we do the basics. It’s not rocket science.”

Motsoaledi said he wished he could tell men to stay away from girls who reached puberty early. However, it appeared many men specifically “go for these girls”.

“Average men believe the Millennium Development Goals have nothing to do with them, when in fact many of them are responsible for us not achieving these goals.” - Cape Times