ACU’s public health research is helping to reduce preventable child mortality in developing countries. Caitlin Ganter speaks with Associate Professor Shawn Somerset
In Australia, where food is everywhere and public healthcare is free, it is virtually impossible to imagine a child dying in the streets from starvation. However, in developing countries there are areas rife with absolute poverty, and for many children, surviving is a daily struggle.
Each year 8.1 million children younger than five die from diseases that are largely preventable. Succumbing to illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and tuberculosis, many of these deaths could have been avoided with proper treatment.
Associate Professor Dr Shawn Somerset, National Public Health Discipline Leader at ACU, is working on a project to help improve food security of vulnerable groups.
The project is centred on developing rapid assessment tools for food security and nutritional status of young mothers in the Philippines and other developing countries. In particular, this involves identifying the times of the year that food is particularly scarce and understanding the cultural methods for coping with this hardship. These tools shape strategies to improve food security and diet in vulnerable groups.
“Public health is the science and art of understanding patterns and causes of ill health, and the development of strategies to prevent and improve health at a community or population level,” said Dr Somerset. “In this project, we are focusing on the health statuses of young mothers, since they have a pivotal role in maintaining family and community wellbeing.”
“Northern Samar has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the Philippines. Weaning is a critical time in a child’s life and malnutrition at that time can have devastating consequences for the children, their families and their communities.”
On average, a Filipino child aged between one and five years old is roughly eight times more likely to die than an Australian child of the same age.
“Mothers have an essential role in maintaining the health of children, firstly through their own health, and then through providing for their children. It is very important to understand underlying cultural issues so that sustainable prevention strategies can be developed.”
The project has its challenges. The region is relatively isolated and there is no road access to the main town; instead boats are used for transport. However, the potential rewards far outweigh the difficulties.
“The development of rapid food security and nutrition assessment tools can be used to identify and evaluate strategies to enhance food security and community nutrition. Therefore, this research will contribute to enhanced food security for Northern Samar and other developing countries, and this will improve infant nutrition and child health, reducing mortality rates.”
Dr Somerset became involved in the project as a result of work by his colleagues.
“Access to the community was facilitated through a project on the disease schistosomiasis being conducted by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Manila and Griffith University.”
Schistosomiasis, also called bilharzia or snail fever, is a parasitic disease carried by snails. Those living in developing countries who cannot afford proper water and sanitation facilities are often exposed to contaminated water containing the infected snails.
“Colleagues from RMIT and Griffith noted a high prevalence of schistosomiasis in this region, which is already known for having one of the highest infant mortality rates in the Philippines. It made sense that food security and nutrition would also be important health issues in the region, so we based the project there.”
“This research matches perfectly with not only public health, but the mission and values of ACU. The wellbeing of a population is judged not by the best facilities available, but by the status of the most vulnerable. The poorest are most at risk of nutrition deficiencies, which lead to overt nutrient deficiency, impaired physical and intellectual growth, and susceptibility to infectious diseases – all of which are eminently preventable.”
“By focusing specifically on young mothers in remote rural communities, this work aims to address some of the inequities in access to safe and nutritious food by poor communities.”