Reaching for new heights

Valuing tallness, Thai parents chase fool's gold

Tallness is a physical attribute prized by many Thai parents, so much so that many have fallen prey to false claims on the internet of miracle devices or treatments to help their child grow beyond their expectations.

But a leading paediatric warned that those who turn to "bone-lengthening tools", acupuncture or special milk powder are setting themselves up for a lifetime of disappointment.

President of the Thai Society for Paediatric Endocrinology Prof Dr Pat Mahachoklertwattana said these approaches have no scientific studies to back them up and consumers therefore should not buy online advertising of these height-increasing claims without discussions with specialists.

"If you google 'height-increasing stuff', you will find a lot of methods such as medication, acupuncture, milk powder and equipments. Some of them claim to make you taller even if you are 25 years old. The public as well as medical practitioners need to know the truth and have better understanding about growth," said Dr Pat recently at the first Growth Day event organised by the Thai Society for Paediatric Endocrinology at Pullman Bangkok King Power Hotel.

Short stature is a condition medically defined as having a body height below normal. It has varying causes and responsible factors. Short parents are likely to give birth to short kids, for instance. Children with no sufficient nutrients or other underlying diseases such as hormone-related abnormalities can also be affected.

Prof Dr Somchit Jaruratanasirikul, paediatric endocrinologist from the Department of Paediatrics, Prince of Songkla University's Faculty of Medicine, said there are two dimensions to human growth: weight and height. The first year of a child's life represents the most rapid growth spurt, with weight increasing up to 6kg and body-length increasing around 25cm. Then from one to two years old, they will gain around 3kg and 12cm. After two years, the weight and height rise will be quite stable -- about 2kg and 5cm per year respectively.

"You can't expect a child to grow faster than this," said Dr Somchit. "When they become adolescent, boys will gain around 5kg and 8-10cm per year while girls around 3-4kg and 6-8cm on a yearly basis. This is standard information given to parents in most cases."

Children's growth and development that is not in line with the growth chart, said Prof Dr Suttipong Wacharasindhu, paediatric endocrinologist and dean of Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Medicine, might be considered abnormal but to pinpoint if this is really a physical health issue, a preliminary examination and screening by paediatric specialists is a must.

"Children might need blood tests or a bone x-ray to check if there are any abnormalities. Doctors won't prescribe growth hormone because they see kids are short. So parents should know when to take their kids to a paediatrician, which conditions need to be treated and which treatment methods are safe. In all, they need to be educated so that they won't believe in false advertising on social media," Dr Suttipong said.

Growth hormone deficiency is among the causes of shortness. This medical issue is not common, according to Dr Pat, affecting only one in 10,000 to 20,000 people globally. Though rare, it can lead to not just shortness but other physical problems such as obesity, high cholesterol and low muscle mass if left unattended. "The more common case, however, is that parents are not satisfied with their kids' height, not that it is an actual disease," added Dr Pat.

Growth hormone deficiency can be hereditary and can be caused by pathological factors of the patients themselves. Doctors need to identify the root cause before deciding if a treatment plan is needed.

Treating shortness with growth hormones literally has a sharp price to pay. According to Dr Pat, growth hormones must be injected over a long period -- in many cases up to 10 years. For a 10kg kid, the injection can cost around 10,000 baht per month. So if a patient weighs 30kg, the injection costs 30,000 baht a month which is a very large sum of money during the 10-year period.

"Accessibility is also a healthcare issue here especially for the poor who are diagnosed as suffering growth hormone deficiency," said Dr Pat. "The state does not see this condition as life threatening. Coupled with the hormone's steep price, the National Health Security Office has decided not to provide support for people with growth hormone deficiency."

Dr Pat stressed that growth hormones are only available in the form of an injection. Growth hormone pills and inhalers sold on the internet are not medically certified.

"Parents should therefore think twice before opting for any height-increasing services available in the world wide web," he said.

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