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Pebbles and diamonds

/ 07:46 AM December 20, 2011

“This is a real treasure,” Northwestern University’s Christopher Kuzawa told the Inquirer. The anthropologist meant a research project that tracked 3,327 Filipinas and their 3,080 kids within 33 Metro Cebu barangays for over 28 years.

University of San Carlos’ Fr. Wilhelm Flieger and Nutrition Center’s Florentino Solon launched the “Cebu Longitudinal Health and Nutrition Survey” in 1983. USC’s Office of Population Studies, thereafter, built a database ranging from birth weight, vaccinations to IQ tests at age 10 to school dropouts.

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No national project matches that sustained—and still-ongoing—research program. Only South Africa, Brazil, India and Guatemala have bragging rights to similar programs. The span makes intergenerational analysis possible

Since then, this research lode anchored scores of programs, from Unicef’s breast-feeding projects to childhood malnutrition in Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Russian demographers used CLHNS data to assess married women’s resource position. The Asian Development Bank used its data in funding early childhood projects.

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Protein energy malnutrition sends more preschool children to premature graves here, than in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan, The World and Asian Development Bank said in their joint report “Early Childhood Development.”

Lack of micronutrients saps intelligence quotients. The IQs of ill-fed kids can be whittled down by 10 to 14 percent, an ADB study says. This loss is irreversible. “Their elevators will never go to the top floor,” Viewpoint noted. “That’s layman lingo for permanently impaired lives.”

Using CLHNS data, Harvard University researchers estimated that economic returns from health safeguarded by vaccinations ranged from 13 percent to 18 percent. The Harvard study backstopped the $13-billion Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.

The Allliance seeks to inoculate children in 75 poorest countries against a range of childhood diseases. “The dispassionate economic case for vaccination looks as strong as the compassionate medical one,” noted the Economist.

Almost three decades of CLHNS studies make it possible to ask in 2011 questions that span generations, Kuzawa told a USC forum. What policies are needed so the next generation of adults can tamp down rising incidence of higher blood pressure, risk for diabetes and heart disease? Birth and growth records of 3,080 survey kids may provide answers.

To determine links between low birth weight and vital C-reactive protein, Northwestern’s biological anthropologist Thomas McDade studied 1461 CLNHS babies, now grownup.

Increased susceptibility to diabetes and heart disease in adult years, as in Scotland, stems from CRP concentration. In Bangladesh, effects emerge even in children as young as five. The same pattern emerges in the Cebu, McDade found.

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Scientists assumed the potential for catch-up growth, after age 2 in stunted babies, was limited. From Cebu, we’ve learned there is “a large potential in catch-up growth in preadolescent years,” wrote North Carolina University’s Linda Adair.

Cebu data also “reinforce evidence that exclusive breast-feeding up to six months of age benefits infants,” OPS deputy director Judith Borja told a Singapore conference. Complementary foods should not be introduced earlier than six months. Continued breast-feeding until the first two years of life is beneficial.

University of the Philippines Population Institute’s Josefina Cabigon crafted with Fr. Flieger infant and child mortality tables. She analyzed Cebu data and concluded, “Other countries have undergone dramatic rises in survival and economic (growth). The Philippines faltered and followed a path of ensuing plateau in infant and child mortality levels.”

On the home front, CLNHS revealed that diarrhea and respiratory illnesses during infancy lowered scores in math and English performance in the first two years in school. Kids stunted by malnutrition at age 2 often ended up with a lower number of years of schooling. It whittled down, for females, the “likelihood of completing high school and college.”

Those who had high height-for-age scores as kids tended to have higher labor productivity, an analysis of 1,888 CLHNS adults entering the labor force found. “What happens early in life has an effect on later life.”

“The first two years of life are a window of opportunity when nutrition programs have an enormous impact on a child’s development, with life-long benefits,” International Food Policy Research Institute notes. After age 3, economic benefits as adults dwindled to zero.

A massive stroke cut down Fr. Flieger in 1999. Cebu’s elite didn’t notice his passing. In contrast, Harvard University’s professor emeritus Nathan Keyfitz wrote: “He was the student, and later the associate of whom I was proudest … Of all my students, he went far beyond his teacher.”

Despite his workload, this Society of the Divine Word priest “found a parish that lacked a pastor. Twice a week, he got into his little Volkswagen and drove to a village near Chicago’s O’Hare airport where he ministered to a congregation that saw (the) purposefulness of his work.”

Cebu officials never grasped the significance or value of CLHNS. Officials instead fiddled with vigilante summary executions, buying handguns for barangay chieftains, fudging yen loans, etc. Then mayor Tomas Osmeña saw to it that his bodyguard, garlanded by three murder charges, was honored with a Cebu City Charter Day award.

“Not so for Fr. Flieger or CLNHS,” Cebu Daily News said. “The blind see no difference between pebbles and diamonds.” In 2011, they still don’t see.

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