Maternal and child malnutrition are underlying causes for more than 3.5 million deaths annually worldwide, with some 35% of the global disease burden manifesting in children under five-years-old. In Ethiopia, it is a major public health problem with long and short-term consequences for the health status of the people and the country’s economy.

‘Such a heavy burden requires an understanding of the nutritional status of the people and associated factors, especially children under the age of five,’ said cum laude statistician, Mr Ashenafi Yirga.

Yirga’s MSc thesis used statistical models to study the Body Mass Index (BMI) of children under the age of five in his home country of Ethiopia and to estimate the effects of the risks related to their nutritional status. He also identified associated socio-economic and demographic factors.

‘The nutritional status and/or weight status of under-five children are a great concern,’ said Yirga. ‘This is because the early years of life are very important for future growth and development. The children are the future citizens of the country – we have a responsibility as parents to formulate and shape their present conditions in the best viable way.’

Yirga explained that BMI was the most frequently used measure for assessing children’s nutritional status and/or weight status. It is also related to health risks and could be a good indicator of the health status of individuals.

‘Identifying factors that affect the BMI of under-five children is very important for possible intervention activities,’ he said. ‘It can also assist policy makers to know and understand the areas that need considerable attention to enhance the planning and evaluation of health policies to prevent a child’s death and to determine a child’s health, diet and growth.’

Two papers have resulted from Yirga’s MSc findings, one published in the Open Public Health Journal and the other accepted for publication in the African Health Sciences Journal.

Ashenafi is focused, hardworking and has immense qualities as an independent researcher, say his supervisors Professor Henry Mwambi and Dr Sileshe Melesse. ‘His passion is for state-of-the-art statistical computing.’

Yirga, who did his undergraduate Statistics degree at Addis Ababa University, was attracted to UKZN for his honours degree because of its reputation as a leading research-led institution. He is currently registered for a PhD at the University and his future plans are to continue his career in the field of Biostatistics and/or Public health.

He paid tribute to his supervisors for their mentorship and professional input and Dr Dawit Ayele for his ‘robust contribution towards the successful completion of my MSc. It was a great privilege and honour to work and study under their guidance,’ said Yirga. 

He also thanked Mr Getachew Zenebe, Mr Addis Habtamu and his sister, Ms Tigist Argaw, for their encouragement and acknowledged the financial support received from the DELTAS SSACAB Africa Initiative.

‘Most of all, I would like to thank God Almighty for giving me the strength, knowledge, ability and opportunity to undertake my MSc study and to persevere and complete it satisfactorily,’ he said.

Words: Sally Frost 

Photograph: Pumla Dlamini