Uitenhage doctor receives award for mental illness research
A doctor at Dora Nginza Hospital has become one of the latest recipients of the Discovery Foundation Rural Individual Fellowship Award for her Master of Medicine (MMed) research on links between mental illness and nutrition — specifically vitamin B12 deficiency.
When Megan Schultz did her community service at the Uitenhage Provincial Hospital, conducting clinical work in Port Elizabeth townships, she noticed that many people living with mental illness were malnourished and living in severe poverty.
This realisation would be a driving force behind her research on the nutritional state of people living with mental illness.
Using vitamin B12 — an important vitamin for brain and nerve function, whose moderate to severe deficiency is also a proven cause of neuropsychiatric symptoms — as her marker, Schultz began vitamin B12 testing at the Uitenhage Provincial Hospital’s mental health unit.
This was after she noticed marked deficiencies in young patients with mood disorders and a spectrum of psychiatric illnesses, which seemingly conflicted with the available literature about vitamin B12 deficiency symptoms.
“I was doing my community service in Uitenhage and became interested in psychiatry after noticing that a lot of people had a B12 deficiency and keeping track of it.
“Then I decided to do it as part of my research for my specialising so that we can exactly quantify how many people have a deficiency and see what we can do about it,” she said.
Over a period of three months, Schultz will review the files of 300 to 400 patients admitted to Dora Nginza Hospital’s mental health unit, documenting vitamin B12 deficiency levels.
The objective is to tailor the World Health Organisation-approved borderline levels to South African conditions, set an appropriately tailored local level, and after more research influence policy and legislation about health-promoting additives to common foodstuffs.
“If these deficiencies are present in the general population and not just a psychiatric problem, it will give us even more grounds to introduce minimum vitamin B12 amounts into prescribed dietary requirements, perhaps even introducing legislation for staple foods like mealie-meal and bread,” she said.
SA’s current cut-off level of determining vitamin B12 deficiency is 136 nanograms in each millilitre, while the World Health Organisation-recommended level to identify vitamin B12 deficiency is between 150 and 221.
Schultz says the country’s level is too low.
An ideal minimum level should be tailored to each country’s unique demographics, gender and age profile and SA’s minimum should be 150, she reckons.
Schultz’s passion for health and wellness in the townships was engraved in her heart growing up in Uitenhage and attending Riebeek College Girls’ High School, an experience that exposed her to people’s different backgrounds.
“My data is based on Port Elizabeth townships Motherwell, Missionvale or New Brighton, so it can only really comment on Port Elizabeth.
“Once completed, I hope to publish it in a journal so that if anyone wants to pick it up and study another area, they can,” she said.
Schultz is one of at least three doctors from Dora Nginza hospital who have received the award.
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