Why ignore health of our youngsters?
YOUTH Month has come to an end. South Africans have spent much of the month deliberating on the challenges facing young people, including how to ensure more are absorbed into the labour market and whether we are providing them with the correct skills and education to participate in the economy.
This conversation is crucial when we take into account the increasing rate of digitisation and mechanisation of the formal economy.
While education and skills of our young people are top of mind for most South Africans, we do not seem to pay sufficient attention to their health. Good health in childhood and adolescence can be correlated with good health in adulthood.
There is also an economic cost to poor health, not just for the individual, but for the public health system as well.
Adolescence is a critical period with specific health and developmental needs and rights. Adolescents are vulnerable because their capacities are still developing and social influences can shape their health and behaviours. Investing in adolescent health creates the opportunity to generate human capital for the country. Moreover, it can transform the lives of young people and bring long-term benefits because the health status in adolescence is likely to affect wellbeing in adulthood.
Good nutrition and quality primary healthcare are crucial to enabling adolescent health. It is therefore quite an indictment that South Africa ranks 70th out of 132 countries for stunted growth rates according to the third Global Nutrition Report, released at the end of 2016. The report suggests that South African children are worse off than their counterparts in poorer countries including Haiti, Senegal, Thailand, Libya and Mauritania.
South Africa is also is under-performing nutritionally compared with countries at similar income level.
Brazil, Colombia, Mozambique, Malawi, Peru and Senegal have all achieved significant gains in providing quality nutrition while South Africa’s success has been limited.
In addition, results from South Africa’s Youth Risk Behaviour Survey (YRBS) (2002, 2008, 2011) and Global Youth Tobacco Survey (1998, 2002, 2008, 2011) reveal some startling trends. We see high rates of risky sexual behaviour and high pregnancy rates in South African adolescents. Results from the YRBS 2002, 2008, and 2011 showed that, approximately only a quarter of adolescents always use condoms during sex; 18% had been pregnant; and 14% had a child. More specifically, in a sample of schoolgirls aged 15 and younger, 14% of them had had sex; 42% had multiple sexual partners in the past three months; and 8% had an abortion.
School is the key setting to promote health and wellbeing. Acting head of the HSRC’s Population Health, Health Systems and Innovation.