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“The first 1000 days of life are a critical period to supporting optimal growth and development in children and protecting them from lifestyle diseases in later life,” says Jose Saavedra, Associate Professor of Paediatrics, Gastroenterology and Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and The Bloomberg School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore, in the United States.
Speaking at an event in Johannesburg today on the role of infant nutrition, Saavedra said the evidence is overwhelming that if we invest in getting the appropriate nutrition in the first 1000 days the benefits are amplified in the later life stages.
“We now understand the concept of foetal origins of adult chronic diseases of lifestyle. This means that we can work with pregnant women to support them through a healthier pregnancy and thereby ensuring a good start to life for their children,” he says.
According to Saavedra, it is critical to help mothers navigate through their own nutrition during pregnancy and the early post-natal period as well as the child’s nutrition.
This was echoed by University of the Witwatersrand Developmental Pathways Research Unit’s Professor Shane Norris. The unit’s Birth to Twenty Programme, is a longitudinal study that has been tracking approximately 3000 pregnant mothers and their children in Soweto since 1990. According to Norris, “about 14% of the women followed by the study had diabetes during pregnancy and this in turn put their unborn babies at risk of getting diabetes as well.”
Norris says South African children grow well in the first 6 – 12 months of life. Growth faltering presents after this and results in stunting by age 2. South Africa currently has one of the highest prevalence of stunting by age 2.
“Whether the challenge is obesity as we are seeing in countries like the United States or undernutrition as we see in a country like South Africa, building a healthy foundation for children means we must be looking at the mother and the child together and providing them with the right information, tools and support in the first 1000 days of life,” Saavedra said.
Dr. Jose (Pepe) Saavedra holds joint appointments, as Associate Professor of Paediatrics, The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He has an extensive record of publications in the area of nutrition, clinical research and is reviewer of all the major nutrition and paediatric journals. Dr. Saavedra’s seminal research at Johns Hopkins in the early 1990s received worldwide attention. His ideas and work in the area of intestinal microflora, disease prevention, and health maintenance through nutrition have led him along a path of activity and scientific interest which has exploded in significance and recognition; for which he is highly sought out as a speaker and educator, nationally and internationally. Health maintenance through nutrition of infants and children summarizes his passion. He continues to be clinically active, following his long term patients at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
Professor Shane Norris is the programme co-ordinator for the Birth to Twenty Research Programme at Wits. The programme has followed more than 3 000 South African children from birth in 1990 to adulthood. Norris’ current area of focus is nutrition and its impact on child and adolescent health and development. This includes early life risk factors for obesity and metabolic diseases such as diabetes in rapidly changing societies like South Africa.
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