Improving adolescent health and well-being worldwide

Two African teen boys eating rice

August 16, 2019—There are currently about 1.8 billion people aged 10–19 around the world—the largest generation of adolescents in human history. A recent workshop convened in Dubai, UAE, by the Nutrition and Global Health Program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, delved into the risks adolescents face and the ways that investing in their health can reap long-term benefits.

The two-day workshop held in July included 30 members and colleagues of the Africa Research, Implementation Science, and Education (ARISE) Network, a platform for collaborative education and research activities in Africa. The meeting was supported by the Harvard Medical School Center for Global Health Delivery–Dubai.

ARISE workshop participants
Workshop participants

ARISE was launched in 2014 by the School’s Africa Health Partnership under the leadership of Wafaie Fawzi, professor of nutrition, epidemiology, and global health, and the Harvard-affiliated Africa Academy for Public Health. It currently has 21 member institutions from nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Adolescent health, which is chronically underfunded and understudied, is one of the network’s key focus areas. It requires careful attention and tailored approaches, said Fawzi.

“Adolescence is a critical window of time because many of the health conditions and behaviors that develop during this period have lifelong consequences,” he said. “Investment in adolescent health globally has triple benefits—to adolescents now and for their life course, as well for the health and well-being of their future families.”

During the workshop, participants highlighted ongoing efforts toward bolstering research in adolescent health, including a recently completed ARISE survey in seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Fawzi said that its findings show that undernutrition remains a major challenge among adolescents, while the number who are overweight is on the rise. Adolescents in these countries also face health risks from early marriage and pregnancy, depression, violence, substance use, and low physical activity, he said.

Members of the network are also working to standardize survey questions for use across all ARISE sites. The questions could potentially be used by national health and demographic surveillance systems, which monitor key population-based health indicators.

The workshop included updates on an ongoing UNICEF-funded ARISE network study on the impact of the school environment on nutrition and health among urban, in-school adolescents ages 10–14 years in countries including Ethiopia, Sudan, and Tanzania. Despite delays related to political instability in Sudan, team members said that the plan is to start data collection in the fall.

Network members see schools as an important entry point for improving adolescent health and well-being. They discussed creating nutrition interventions, such as midday meal programs and nutritional supplementation, as part of broader approaches to enhance health and education. Participants also highlighted successful adolescent health programs, including an intervention in Ethiopia focused on youth empowerment, and ways to apply lessons from these programs to other locations around the world.

—Tara Young, Amy Roeder

Photos: himarkley/iStock, courtesy of ARISE Network