Budget debate: New task force to boost women and children's health

A Gusto study has shown that a mother's health can directly influence her child's development. PHOTO: SHIN MIN DAILY NEWS

SINGAPORE - A new inter-agency task force has been set up to ensure there is comprehensive support to help women prepare for motherhood, and help children attain good health and well-being from their early years.

Local research by the Growing Up in Singapore towards Healthy Outcomes, or Gusto, study has shown that a mother's health can directly influence her child's development, and that a child's early years can have a lasting impact on later life outcomes.

"These findings underscore the importance of intervening early in life to prevent disadvantages from snowballing, and that parents play a key role to a child's longer-term development," said Second Minister of Health Masagos Zulkifli at the Ministry of Health's budget debate on Friday (March 5).

He will chair the task force that will oversee the development and implementation of a five-year Child and Maternal Health & Well-being action plan.

"Its scope will span from preconception to adolescents aged 18 years old - many critical developmental milestones occur then," said Mr Masagos, who is also the Minister for Social and Family Development.

"These are part of our larger efforts to improve the population's health by addressing individual health needs and modifiable risk factors, beyond the healthcare domain."

The task force will bring together various agencies such as the Early Childhood Development Agency, Health Promotion Board, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth , Ministry of Education, Ministry of Social and Family Development, Prime Minister's Office and public healthcare clusters.

Discussions on what will be in the plan started at the beginning of the year and will continue this year. The plan will be implemented in phases, with the first phase expected to be ready by early next year.

Professor Chong Yap Seng, a member of the action plan's work group, said they will look at how to keep women in good physical and mental health for motherhood, support the development of a healthier next generation and reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity through sustained lifestyle changes.

Prof Chong, who is the executive director of the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences, A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research), said that poor mental health in pregnant women has been shown to have an adverse impact on their children.

Nearly 40 per cent of the mothers in the Gusto study had high levels of depressive symptoms, which were associated with changes in their babies' brains on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at birth, which persisted even at four years of life, he said.

"The children of mothers with high levels of depressive symptoms also performed poorer in tests of their socio-emotional regulation, executive function, reasoning, memory and other pre-academic skills at four years of age."

Prof Chong, who is the study's lead principal investigator and dean of the National University of Singapore's Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said that other studies have shown that mental health disorders are a major burden among children and adolescents in Singapore.

"Approximately one in 10 pregnant women exhibits clinical symptoms of depression. One in 25 women has depressive symptoms after delivery that required intervention," said another action plan work group member, Associate Professor Chan Yoke Hwee, who is chairman of the division of medicine at KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

"This problem is not uncommon, and can be detected through systematic screening and assessment. However, the challenges lie in raising awareness in the society about this issue and encouraging women to undergo assessment and intervention if required."

Prof Chong said: "Pregnancy is like national service, so employers have to be fair to them. Maybe maternity leave needs to be enhanced or lengthened."

In coming up with various initiatives, the task force will also help to boost flagging fertility rates and reduce the mental health burden in mothers and children, he said.

Furthermore, Singapore has one of the highest rates of gestational diabetes in the world. These mothers have a two in five chance of going on to have diabetes or pre-diabetes within the next six years and their children will have a higher risk of obesity, diabetes and neuro-behavioural issues, said Prof Chong.

"Women are starting their families later and having (fewer) children. We are not replacing ourselves. Beyond this scary demographic reality, older mothers will have more health issues during pregnancy," said Prof Chong.

"The Government recognises that a lot of health and well-being issues stem from early life... There's a need to protect and optimise our human capital."

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