One in seven babies are born prematurely, with about 250 000 babies born to HIV-positive mothers each year. While the baby may be HIV-negative, the exposure it has to the virus while in the womb still has negative effects.
Dr Nadia Chanzu-Ikumi, researcher at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine at UCT, is trying to understand what influence the HIV infection might have on the immune system of the mother and, as a consequence, how that may affect the baby.
“Early in my career, when I was working on a study involving HIV prevalence in Kenyan women, I came across the phenomenon of HIV-positive mothers having a higher risk of premature births. Often, even if these women carry their babies to term, the babies are born underweight and with compromised immune systems,” she said.
Chanzu-Ikumi believes that the better we understand the effects the environment and other external factors have on the development of babies, the more we can accommodate a healthy start for them in life.
She believes that there is a strong movement towards exploring all aspects of the first 1 000 days of a baby’s life, which covers more than the first two years of life. This time period has the most profound impact on a child’s development.
The research also undertakes to better understand and explore a baby’s health during the nine months it spends in the womb.
According to the World Health Organisation, 15 million babies are born prematurely worldwide every year. Approximately a million of them will die due to complications. Some of the factors that lead to this are poor nutrition, mental ill-health, alcohol and smoking.
“Three-quarters of the deaths due to complications arising from preterm birth are preventable - if only we would have better access to health care,” said Chanzu-Ikumi.
Three years ago, she became the first African post-doctoral fellow awarded the Axa Research Fund at UCT. The fund is the scientific philanthropy initiative of global insurance leader Axa, which is dedicated to boosting scientific discoveries that contribute to societal progress.
Researchers are encouraged to engage with the general audience and feed the public debate to ensure that better health care access and understanding is nurtured.
Chanzu-Ikumi recently collaborated with the Axa Research Fund to appear in a series of videos on the Axa YouTube channel, called Motherhood. The video covers how to give babies a good start to their life and investigates how the environment that they are exposed to could alter the developing immune systems of the unborn.
“The idea behind the video is to create awareness about how the health of babies in utero can be affected by the external environment and the health of the mother,” said Chanzu-Ikumi.
In the video, she explains in further detail the risks involved with unborn babies and expands on what can be done to help.