Poor prenatal health 'primes kids for failure'

By NONTOBEKO MTSHALI Time of article published Sep 26, 2011

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‘WHAT happens in the womb determines how you do in school.”

So said Professor Haroon Saloojee when he delivered the eighth Bishop Hans Brenninkmeijer Memorial Lecture at St Augustine’s College in Victory Park, Joburg.

Saloojee, a senior neonatologist at Chris Hani-Baragwanath Academic Hospital and the head of the Division of Community Paediatrics at Wits University, said the majority of children were academically disadvantaged long before they entered school because of poor prenatal health, usually as a result of poverty.

“Before children get to school, a quarter to a third (of them) are already primed for underperformance and failure,” he said.

Conditions that retarded a child’s growth, such as low birth weight and stunting (when a child is too short for their age), led to poor academic performance. He

explained that if the mother was starved of nutrients, the foetus adapted by grabbing and hoarding whatever nutrients it could get to survive.

After birth, the child’s system continued hoarding nutrients even when food was available, leading to conditions like hypertension, diabetes and obesity. Worms, stunting and anaemia were some of the conditions that had a direct negative effect on a child’s IQ.

Inexpensive early intervention and treatment could improve the situation, and

there were things the departments of Basic Education and Health could do to help.

The National Health Insurance was a welcome move. However there was a 40 percent shortage of nurses.

Teachers could be trained to administer worm tablets and vitamin supplements.

“We must understand the situation (of not having enough nurses). The departments must work together on this,” Salooje said.

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