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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 06:19 GMT 07:19 UK
Estate's bid to end poor health
David Williams
By David Williams

Gurnos estate
Merthyr Tydfil has one of the highest rates of UK sickness

David Williams made a television documentary in the south Wales valleys 18 years ago. The area is among the most deprived in Europe, and he has returned as part of BBC Wales' Me and My Health season to find out what has changed.

I first met Rhonda Braithwaite when filming a documentary about the effects on the unemployed of a new benefits system.

Rhonda, who was bringing up six children and supporting an out-of-work husband, told me the new system would increase their benefits by just 57p a fortnight... 57p more to feed the family.

But Rhonda is not one to let hardship grind her down.

She has survived those 18 years; brought up her family and nursed her husband who became ill and almost died.

Recently she lost her eldest son, Darren, aged 34.

Kelly Parry and Deanne Rebane
Kelly Parry and Deanne Rebane make cakes in Poland

In the intervening years, she has moved from Trebanog in Rhondda to the Gurnos estate in Merthyr Tydfil, and she is now employed full time by a European-funded project called Equal, which tries to find practical solutions to problems associated with poverty and deprivation.

For our new documentary, we filmed in Poland with women from the Gurnos making cakes for their Polish hosts and Parisian guests.

It was the perfect example of co-operation and friendship between the people of the new Europe, but for the women of the Gurnos, it symbolised changes they themselves have brought about.

Until three years ago many of them didn't cook at all. They instead fed themselves and their families processed and fast foods.

The link between diet, health and health inequalities is well established. The women of the Gurnos did their own research - partly funded by Equal - to find out what people wanted to do about it.

Diet and cooking were the answers.

Kelly Parry
Three years ago I was feeding my kids chips, chips, chips and chips
Kelly Parry

This was not a Jamie Oliver thing. This was about poverty which fuels appalling health statistics.

The roll-call of ailments associated with deprivation is depressingly long: higher mortality rates; heart disease; diabetes; cancers and mental and behavioural disorders.

The survey on the Gurnos revealed people there were very conscious they were eating junk food and had an unhealthy lifestyle.

They knew what healthy food was, but they regarded it as something reserved for "them" - the "boring" people who ate all the right foods. It wasn't for the Gurnos.

Paradoxically, the survey also showed that what those canvassed wanted was a chance to change all that. They requested cooking lessons.

This was not something imposed by 'them' from outside. There had been too much of that and it had failed.

MERTHYR TYDFIL STATISTICS

Population: 55981
Highest proportion with long-term illness in Wales; second worst in England and Wales
Highest proportion of permanently sick or disabled in Wales; second worst in England and Wales
Source: 2001 census

The result has been a radical change in attitude and increased self confidence and self esteem.

You could see it in the faces we filmed in Poland. They were beaming with happiness at the opportunity to show off their cooking skills.

Kelly Parry, a single mother with three young children, summed it up: "It's brilliant. I never thought I'd be doing this and I never thought I'd be doing it in Poland."

"Three years ago I was feeding my kids chips, chips, chips and chips."

Meanwhile Rhonda's work has given her confidence to share with others ways of coping with a life blighted by poverty.

Prof David Owens
Prof Owens reveals 'shocking' childhood obesity statistics

She is convinced that the health of her surviving children is because of their diet and exercise. She told me: " They are strapping children, but they are not obese."

That cannot be said about an increasing number of children in Wales.

Consultant Professor David Owens shocked me with the latest statistics.

The children of Wales are now the third most obese in the world. Only the United States and Malta has fatter children.

Professor Owens also sounds an alarming note when he says that unless we tackle the problem of obesity it will "bankrupt the NHS".

One of the problems associated with obesity is the growing prevalence of diabetes, particularly Type 2 diabetes, which now affects children as well as adults.

Diabetes is draining an estimated 10% of NHS resources. By the end of this decade that percentage could double.

Professor Owens, director of diabetes research at Llandough Hospital, has pioneered an all-Wales survey of diabetic patients.

Rhonda Braithwaite
Rhonda Braithwaite is now inspiring others to change their poor diets

He said there was a direct correlation between the prevalence of the disease and poorer communities.

That is why the Gurnos project takes on significance much greater than that envisaged when it was first conceived.

It is about changing attitudes to food, diet and health and nowhere is that more difficult to achieve than in deprived communities where the pressures of poverty weigh heavily on vulnerable people.

But that one project on one estate in Wales has shown that it is possible to change attitudes.

The effect on those involved has been truly remarkable.

In Poor Health, BBC One Wales, Thursday, 5 October 2235 BST




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