Wits scientists launch book about Africa’s largest and longest running birth cohort

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The study tracks the lives of some 3 000 people born in South Africa in the early 1990s and known affectionately as ‘Mandela’s Children’. These children are now 32-years-old. Photo: File
The study tracks the lives of some 3 000 people born in South Africa in the early 1990s and known affectionately as ‘Mandela’s Children’. These children are now 32-years-old. Photo: File


Over half of the women who had been part of Africa’s largest and longest-running birth cohort study felt overwhelmed by debt and reported intimate partner violence and depression compared to their mothers.

This has been revealed in a book titled Birth to Thirty: A Study as Ambitious as the Country we Wanted to Create written by Professor Linda Richter, director of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Richter, one of the founders of the Bt30 study as it is known, launched the book on Friday for the academics at the Origins Centre in Wits and on Saturday, hosted an event to thank the participants at Jabulani Sports Complex in Soweto.

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The book weaves stories of over 2 000 participants who had been followed by Richter and her team of scientists from their births in 1990 between April 23 and June 8 through the first three decades of their lives.

The participants, to whom the book is dedicated, completed over 22 rounds of data collection.

They also answered countless questions, gave blood and urine samples, and were repeatedly measured and scanned. Their mothers participated, both as caregivers and individuals in their own right.

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Richter said this was one of Africa’s largest and longest-running birth cohort studies in dynamic Soweto, Johannesburg. This cohort of young people was the first to grow up in a free and democratic South Africa.

The research over the years was conducted by a group of scientists from Wits and it has been built on a long history of the study of children’s growth and health in South Africa.

According to the study, over half of the women born in 1990 had matric whereas only a quarter of their mothers did. The study also reveals that the group of women live in households with consumer goods, such as motor cars, refrigerators and washing machines.

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The study discovered that by the age of 13, 22% of Bt30 teens had tried alcohol, while 21% had tried smoking, which increased to 70% at 18 years.

Also by the age of 13, 16% had used marijuana, increasing to above 65% in late adolescence. By the age of 28, 43% substantially more males than women were drinking heavily, more than two to four times a month and 32% reported using marijuana.

Read part of the book: 

In a longitudinal analysis of 2 216 Bt30 participants between the ages of 11 and 18 found that the median age of sexual debut was 15 for boys and 16 for girls. By age 13, 5% of girls and 26% of boys had engaged in sex, coerced rather than voluntary. In over half of cases, 10% of Bt30 babies were born to women younger than 18 years.

Richter, who created this historical record, said it took her over three years to write the book from 2019.

“Bt30 tracks the first generation of young people raised in democratic South Africa. The parents of Bt30 children suffered extreme disadvantages under apartheid and we looked at how family and parental history was transmitted to their children.”

Richter said: 

The collection of antenatal data started on February 13 1990 and data was collected from 2 093 pregnant women during their last trimester of pregnancy, but only 1 595 women were interviewed during that time and delivered their babies within the defined study birth dates mainly because of a series of strikes by general workers.

Richter said many Bt30 children had been exposed to poor socioeconomic conditions, household stresses and violence at home, as well as in their schools and their communities. At the same time, many had also enjoyed loving families, committed teachers and supportive peers.

Richter said she was grateful that she led and contributed to Bt30.

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“It is one of the big achievements of my career. My most cherished dream would come true if one of our students, with even bigger dreams, secured a large grant to continue to follow up with the cohort and their children and even their children’s children. We have so many more research questions that need answering as these young adults progress to older ages,” she said.

The book is available from Amazon and Takealot.

The Birth to Thirty (Bt30) study in Soweto is Africa’s largest and longest-running birth cohort study. Photo: Wits

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