Childhood Health Specialist Swoops Up International Award
30 May 2014
Professor Heather Zar, Head of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, has been awarded the 2014 World Lung Health Award for her dedication to eradicating childhood health disparities at a prestigious event in San Diego, in the USA, on 21 May 2014.
Respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, pneumonia and tuberculosis (TB) are global issues, but the burden of these diseases falls largely on Africa and other low-and-middle- income countries, a significant portion of whose populations are under the age of 17 years.
For the first time, the World Lung Health Award, awarded annually by the American Thoracic Society – a major international lung health society, has been bestowed upon someone from Africa and someone who specialises in childhood health.
"This award was given to me, but it reflects a lot of work done by a lot of people, as well as strong collaborations with excellent colleagues," says Zar. "My hope is that it helps shine a spotlight on this relatively under-resourced area of research. Children are so seldom prioritised on the health agenda. There's a lack of knowledge about the burden of childhood illnesses – even though children make up 37% of the population in South Africa, and 50 - 60% in other African countries."
New this year, the award has an added focus on healthcare inequality and those individuals whose efforts have the potential to eliminate gender, racial, ethnic, or economic health disparities worldwide.
“My hope is that the World Lung Health Award will highlight child health, a relatively under resourced area of research. We want to move this field forward so that we can improve children’s lives. We have to develop better ways of preventing and treating childhood diseases.
After seeing children struggle with taking Theophylline, an oral treatment for asthma, Zar and her team pioneered the use of a homemade asthma spacer – an empty 500ml plastic cooldrink bottle – at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital because asthma spacers (the chamber that is attached to an asthma inhaler, allowing children to breathe in their medication more easily over a number of breaths) were too expensive.
Thanks to their low-budget solution, the use of cooldrink bottles as asthma spacers is now included in guidelines from the Global Initiative for Asthma and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Another advance that Professor Zar and her team have pioneered is developing better ways of diagnosing TB in children and in this way enabling rapid treatment. A confirmed diagnosis of TB in children is now possible using a method they have developed to obtain the children’s sputum; same-day diagnosis can be done by using Xpert (a new method to detect the TB germ) on the child’s sputum. This too is now included in the WHO guidelines.
Most recently Professor Zar and her team have set up a unique birth cohort study of childhood pneumonia and the determinants of child health. The study is set in the Drakenstein area. It includes the study of maternal health, social determinants, nutrition and environmental exposures in the context of a strong immunisation and child health programme.
She said these are good examples of how sophisticated resources can be used to improve child healthcare – in both a low-cost and impactful way.
Zar, an internationally renowned paediatric pulmonologist, has devoted her time to contributing to clinical research, delivering healthcare, continuing education and taking care of children with lung diseases.
Her research efforts, clinical care, and advocacy have all focused on improving the pulmonary health of children. including asthma, pneumonia, TB and HIV-associated lung diseases.
Photo by Michael Hammond, UCT.