In a bid to innovate the research agenda and create greater impact, UKZN’s African Health Saving Lives Research Flagship has launched the Optimal Child Growth and Development (OrCHID) project.
The African Health Research Flagship, one of the four created by the University and formally launched in 2018, is led by Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim, one of the world’s leading HIV/AIDS researchers in her capacity as Pro Vice–Chancellor: African Health. The African Health research flagship’s primary focus is on reducing the leading causes of mortality faced by South Africans and the continent at large by finding solutions that can assist the government in implementing viable strategies and policies.
‘The project (Optimal Child Growth and Development) being introduced talks to what we want to achieve as African Health. We want to identify problems that exist in society (by) finding meaningful solutions. Together with our stakeholders, that can be implemented,’ said UKZN’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Professor Deresh Ramjugernath.
Under its tagline: Building Thriving Communities through Risk Reduction from impacts of Nutrition, Environment and Social Constructs, the OrCHID programme recently received a R2.5 million injection for its work. The programme intends to implement a series of interventions; including neurocognitive stimulation, dietary interventions and locally developed nutrition strategies, parental support programmes, as well as the development of smartphone applications that will allow communities to understand their environmental exposure and take appropriate action to reduce exposure. Research conducted within the OrCHID project will explore household factors that influence nutrition and dietary choices and approaches to parenting; particularly the role of the father. Through focus groups, a recipe book based on locally sourced foods will be developed and a clinical trial of Moringa Olifera, which is rich in antioxidants, will be conducted.
Professor Rajen Naidoo, an Environmental Epidemiology expert from the School of Nursing and Public Health and OrCHID team representative, thanked the University for its innovative approach to supporting research. He highlighted how the project is set to focus on how society brings up a child; concentrating on the four key aspects that affect this; namely poverty, epigenetics, pollution and nutrition. ‘We want to create a multidisciplinary study that brings all the different aspects together instead of them being broken up into silos,’ said Naidoo.
Professor Anil Chuturgoon, a Genetics-Epigenetics expert from the School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences who is also part of OrCHID, thanked UKZN for the funding; stating how grateful he was for the opportunity. He will investigate the Biomolecular aspect of the project, focusing on the epigenetic changes of a child from inception and how these changes affect adverse birth outcomes and neurocognition. ‘We need to stop looking at the West for solutions to our problems and start looking at our own continent (Africa),’ he said. ‘We have the solutions to our problems, we have state of the art equipment and researchers to pull it off,’ he added.
OrCHID plans to achieve all of this by using their two existing cohorts; their almost six-year-old Mother and Child in the Environment (MACE) cohort that looks at ambient pollution and child respiratory health, as well as the SONKE cohort (based in northern KwaZulu-Natal) that focuses on antenatal pesticide exposure and its neurobehavioral health outcomes on offspring. A total of 300 children from these two cohorts will participate in the engagement of child, mother, parental, household and community levels.
Words: Hlengiwe Khwela
Photograph: Albert Hirasen