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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The Novartis Foundation Launches Healthy Schools against Hypertension, Obesity in Children

Rebecca Ejifoma

The Novartis Foundation in collaboration with the University of Basel and other partners have launched Healthy Schools for Healthy Communities in its efforts to address poor health, hypertension and obesity in disadvantaged schools in South Africa.

Following the successful first stage of the Disease, Activity and Schoolchildren’s Health (DASH) research project, coordinated by the University of Basel in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, this second phase builds on learnings to further develop and scale successful interventions to more schools in the country, and potentially across other geographies in the future.

The goal of Healthy Schools for Healthy Communities – known locally as ‘KaziBantu’ – is to improve the overall and cardiovascular health of schoolchildren and their teachers.

Its focus will be on promoting health literacy, ensuring a formalised physical exercise programme, providing access to medical examinations including anti-helminthic treatment, monitoring cardiovascular risk factors and providing nutritional supplementation where necessary.

In 2014, a partnership among the University of Basel, the Nelson Mandela University and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute created the DASH project to identify the causes and address the impact of poor health on children in schools from disadvantaged neighborhoods in Port Elizabeth.

The programme investigated the health and wellbeing of children in eight schools, with a particular focus on the link among physical activity, infectious diseases and risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic disease. This study was the first of its kind for African children and discovered that one-third of all examined schoolchildren had high blood pressure, while 16-21% were overweight or obese.

Meanwhile, the DASH study provided evidence that improvements in children’s nutrition and physical activity not only contributes to their cognitive performance in school, but can also contribute to a reduction of hypertension, heart disease, and overall cardiovascular risk factors.

Physical activity was also found to correlate with health-related quality of life. To date, little to no comprehensive interventions have been examined to address cardiovascular health among students and teachers in low-income school settings.

The aim of this expansion phase from DASH to Healthy Schools for Healthy Communities is therefore to generate the evidence that simple interventions can improve cardiovascular health.

According to Head of the Novartis Foundation, Ann Aerts, “At the Novartis Foundation, we realise that the complex nature of cardiovascular diseases makes achieving impact, scale and sustainability extremely difficult. No single actor can tackle hypertension alone and to address hypertension and its complications, multisector and multidisciplinary action is needed.

“That is why we are excited for Healthy Schools for Healthy Communities to enter this new phase, and to work to further develop the initiative with our partners.”

To achieve this aim, the Novartis Foundation is collaborating other organisations to address hypertension around the world - from pilot models to approaches that aim to achieve impact at scale from the start.

“Launched this year, Better Hearts Better Cities convenes networks of multisector partners to contribute expertise and resources to solutions that improve cardiovascular health at scale in cities,” she added.

Now, the other hypertension programmes supported by the Novartis Foundation - Communities for Healthy Hearts in Vietnam and the Community-based Hypertension Improvement Project (ComHIP) in Ghana – aim to bring hypertension detection and management closer to local communities by maximizing hypertension screening and awareness opportunities.

As its first programme to include the education sector, Healthy Schools for Healthy Communities marks an important next step in the Novartis Foundation’s multisector approach to addressing hypertension. As with all “Our programmes, learnings from Healthy Schools for Healthy Communities will inform other hypertension initiatives as part of an ongoing process of evaluation and adaptation”,  Aerts said.

The Novartis Foundation’s partners for this initiative include the University of Basel, the Government of South Africa, the Nelson Mandela University, and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH).

Speaking on the initiative, the former Vice President for Education at the University of Basel, Hedwig Kaiser expressed that  KaziBantu or Healthy Schools for Healthy Communities offers an opportunity to continue the successful work they had already started, continue to make improvements and, through collaboration, impact the lives of many more children in SA.

Therefore, to further address the rising rates of obesity and poor heart health, the Dean in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the Nelson Mandela University, Professor Lungile Pepeta, recommended the need for all to work together and start early.
He said: “Through KaziBantu, if we can build health literacy and foster better health in our children from a young age, then we can look toward healthier generations in the future.”

Accordingly, Peter Steinmann from Swiss pointed out that their research during the DASH programme found that a third of children were hypertensive, adding that it is a staggering number when one considers these are children in primary schools.
From his word: “We’re pleased to be part of the continuation of this project and hope it will be able to positively impact the lives of many more children in the future.”