Canada supports efforts to address ECD

‘€œIt is a huge waste of talent and potential. It equates to taking 200-million young brains around the world and throwing them into 200-million waste bins,’€ said Dr Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, the driving force behind a government funded initiative to support 11 bold ideas that address the health conditions causing diminished cognitive potential and stunting in children.

The Saving Brains initiative aims to address the significant challenges facing the developing world, investing CAD$11.8-million over two years in ideas from 11 innovators aimed at improving conditions in the first 1 000 days of children’€™s lives so they can flourish and pull themselves ‘€“ and consequently their countries ‘€“ out of poverty.

At least two of the recipients have South African links.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal Vertical Transmission Study supported HIV-positive and HIV-negative women to exclusively breastfeed their infants in a rural area of South Africa where mixed breastfeeding (i.e. breastmilk and other fluids and solids) was the norm.

The Saving Brains investment will allow the researchers to now investigate whether this early feeding intervention is associated with further benefits for children, in terms of development, health and school readiness. If benefits for the children are established, this will have major policy and clinical implications especially in view of the relative simplicity and low cost of the intervention and global recommendations about breastfeeding.

The other project set in South Africa, Thula Sana will be focused in Khayelitsha and more specifically on single mothers who travel from the Eastern Cape to give birth in Cape Town.

According to Grand Challenges Canada Programme Officer Dr Karlee Silver, Thula Sana involves the coaching of these mothers to communicate and interact with their babies from birth. The study will track the children up to 13 years of age to establish if this intervention impacts on the child’€™s development.

‘€œThese ideas are proven in the short term, but now the funding will provide innovators the opportunity to study the long-term developmental potential of these interventions,’€ said Silver.

Commenting on the challenging task of having to distinguish between a host of developmental challenges facing especially poor countries, Silver agrees that ‘€œthere is only so far we can go with another baby message’€. This is why the innovations will be linked to the impact it could have on the individual’€™s earning power later in life and in turn the economies of countries, a language politicians understand.

Singer believes that once the spotlight is focused on the problem it will make sense to people and why it is such a critical issue to address. He referred to a statement by Canadian First Lady Laureen Harper: ‘€œThe healthy development of the brain can be influenced by malnutrition, infection, birth complications, or a lack of nurturing and stimulation at an early age’€.

Singer added: ‘€œWe need human capital and to create it, we need to pay attention to the development of children.’€

Grand Challenges is dedicated to supporting bold ideas with big impact in global health and funded by the Canadian government.

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