North-West University: Golden opportunity to help vulnerable learners become healthy adults

The surge in lifestyle diseases in South Africa could be halted by paying more attention to the lifestyle choices of young and vulnerable learners, especially in rural areas.

“The period of rapid growth and development that occurs in childhood has a profound impact on future health and quality of life enjoyed in adulthood, and represents a golden window of opportunity in terms of improving the overall lifetime health of populations and promoting rights to health for all,” says Prof Ushotanefe Useh, director of the Lifestyle Diseases research entity at the North-West University (NWU).

However, care of young and vulnerable children currently tends to be neglected in favour of the adult population, he says.

To address this, the research entity started a project to bring care to the doorstep of vulnerable learners. The aim is to assist learners to make healthy food choices as poor nutrition is one of the leading causes of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

“NCDs threaten our health and development and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. These diseases are currently responsible for a high percentage of global deaths, mostly in low and middle-income countries such as South Africa,” he explains.

“Most of these deaths can be attributed to emerging NCD epidemics in developing countries. Children are especially vulnerable and powerless, since they often can’t advocate their own unique challenges and special needs.”

To reach vulnerable learners, the Lifestyle Diseases research entity, in collaboration with the Provincial Department of Health and Education, has decided to adopt Stadt Primary School in a rural community of Mahikeng. This will include visiting the school to talk to learners about individual lifestyle changes they can make to secure a healthier future.

The overall goals of this intervention are to:

identify lifestyle diseases in primary schools in the North West province,
determine how knowledgeable learners are about lifestyle diseases,
assess the link between health-related quality of life and lifestyle diseases in schools, and
develop strategies for the prevention, care and management of chronic diseases associated with lifestyles that are compatible or culturally acceptable at individual, community, and societal levels.
“Individual lifestyle management represents the first point of intervention for the prevention and management of lifestyle diseases,” Prof Ushotanefe says. “As such, there is a need for individual and community engagement research to unearth lifestyle habits and choices, to develop strategies for the prevention and management of these diseases in South Africa.”

While this effort is not novel, this project approaches this endeavour from a qualitative approach. “This will involve exploring the lived reality of community members to understand lifestyle diseases in their context, and to design applicable interventions for them,” concludes Prof Ushotanefe.

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