/ 26 March 2010

Giving healthcare for children and seniors a shot in the arm

On a Monday morning, expect to come across a pack of seventysomethings trotting along the dusty roads of Sharpeville, known for the massacre of 69 people 50 years ago.

Departing from the Sharpeville Care of the Aged, they will cover at least a kilometre, leaving behind another ambling group. This slower crowd, which will circle only the centre, is distinguishable by the kieries they rely on to help their weary limbs along.

Wilna Oldewage-Theron will be walking with them and talking to them about their wellness, sharing information about what to do, to eat and to drink to stay healthy. ‘The Sharpeville integrated nutrition programme for the elderly is my passion,” she says.

A professor at the nearby Vaal University of Technology (VUT), she is the director of the Institute of Sustainable Livelihoods (ISL), which uses its research capabilities to reduce poverty, household food insecurity and malnutrition in Africa.

The institute works within a National Research Foundation-accredited research area and supports the national department of health’s integrated nutrition programme, which promotes the health of women, children and the elderly.

So successful has the institute been in pulling in external funding, attracting postgraduate students and publishing its research findings, that in May it will become a fully fledged research centre. Oldewage-Theron, joined by the centre’s senior researcher, Abdulkadir Egal, and research administrator Jacqueline Dube, has witnessed significant gains in Sharpeville since the programme’s inception in 2004.

Back then a baseline study showed 73% of the centre’s 400 weekly visitors — the average age is 73 years — had zinc deficiencies, 46% had an iron shortage, 64% had high blood pressure and 86% were obese. Interventions such as the weekly walk and a supplementation programme have contributed to a change in this data set.

The zinc deficiency went down to 11% and the iron deficiency decreased to 8%. Soya, the only plant protein with the same amino acid composition as meat, as well as being more affordable, is an important focus of the centre’s activities, some involving multidisciplinary work with other faculties of VUT.

In Qwa-Qwa in the Free State, under the auspices of the South African-Netherlands Research Programme for Alternatives in Development, soya has been planted in an effort to address macro- and micro-nutrient deficiencies of children and their caregivers in this rural area.

‘We are working with the university’sengineers to develop a machine which could help make soya milk,” Oldewage-Theron said. Some of the centre’s other activities include the development of a nutrition education manual for parents, teachers, staff and volunteers involved in the national school nutrition programme under the auspices of the education department.

The aim is to teach children about healthy eating habits, which is also being achieved by a board game and playing cards supported by an activity book, to address malnutrition.

VUT’s visual arts and design students provided support on this particular project, including doing fieldwork to test the appropriateness of the pictures and the messages they convey.