Thursday, September 6, 2007

Helen Davis, the ghost student, writes about her human health project in South Africa

Dear class,
Did you know we have another student that you have not yet met? Why, you ask? Because she is currently working with the People's Health Movement of South Africa on an important project aimed at lowering the rate of fetal alcohol syndrome in two South African rural communities. Here's someone out there trying to make a difference in the world of human ecology by doing some applied work and Helen's been nice enough to write us a little blog post about her efforts there that I think you will all find very interesting. A couple of articles about fetal alcohol syndrome that are related to the project can be found here and here. Helen will join the class in person later this month.

That's enough from me - here's a brief synopsis of Helen's work down there that she submitted via email:

My research thus far has focused on the substantive role of health and ecology on juvenile development. Specifically, I am interested in the extent to which health, structural, and cultural constraints impact variation in juvenile development and cognitive performance. Over the last couple of years my interests have broadened to include the social and practical applications of this research. Specifically, I am interested in assessing and documenting the obstacles transitioning populations face as they acculturate into a market economy—the ultimate goal being to develop culturally appropriate public health and education programs.

The University of Cape Town in South Africa is a unique research institution which uses Anthropology, Public Health, Human Rights and Medicine to combat many issues that have come to light since the end of apartheid (such as battling the world’s highest rates of HIV/AIDS and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, as well as growing health issues in children due to maternal exposure to toxins and pesticides while pregnant). I am currently working on two projects here at UCT in order to learn how this program approaches the health concerns and issues facing many transitioning and/or disenfranchised populations.

One of the projects is looking at Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and possible methods of intervention. FAS is an entirely preventable congenital anomaly manifesting as abnormal development, such as cognitive and personality impairments, as well as physical deformities in children, is an issue of great concern and debate within South Africa. Recognizing and recording how these situations have arisen, their repercussions and to develop preventative methods for future generations is overarching goal of this project, which is funded by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Alcoholism among traditional populations and within developing countries has been attributed to poverty, exploitation and a lack of education. Within South Africa, historical exploitative labor practices under apartheid—known as the DOP system—paid laborers and farm workers in the form of alcohol rations. As a result alcohol dependency and problem drinking is widespread in farming communities in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, and the region is host to the highest rate of FAS in the world (studies estimate that 4 to 6% of school-going age children in rural areas of the Western Cape have the full-blown FAS syndrome). The consequence of FAS for families, communities and society at large are enormous.

As a student working with this research program I have been granted the opportunity to work with the development, implementation and evaluation of interventions that may reduce the risk of alcohol-exposed pregnancies, and are specific to the individual at risk, service providers and the general community. Three levels of interventions are currently being evaluated. Since there is little evidence of the effectiveness of different prevention approaches, they must be determined through carefully controlled evaluation studies.

This study is taking place within 2 distinct sites: City of Tshwane, in Gauteng, and the West Coast of the Western Cape. I work solely with the project in the Western Cape. If anyone wants more information about the project itself or the target population I would be glad to provide it; however, I feel I have probably already bored everyone to tears.

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