Osteoporosis is as common among women in Vietnam as it is in Europe, and despite the strong sunshine, vitamin D deficiency is a serious problem. These findings were presented by the researcher Huong Nguyen in her PhD thesis that she defended at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. Thanks to Sida’s research programme, she has been able to alternate her PhD studies between the fieldwork in Hanoi and the experiments and expert-guided studies in Stockholm.
"How can the level of osteoporosis be so high among Vietnamese women? We eat a lot of tofu and drink soymilk every day?"
That was the question that the researcher Huong Nguyen asked herself when seeing the result of the first national study carried out to measure bone mineral density among the population in Vietnam. A total of 222 men and 612 women were tested and the results were worrying: nearly one in four women above 50 experienced osteoporosis (brittle-bone disease) at the head of the thigh bone and when looking at the lower back, nearly 50 per cent of the women were affected. The disease is more common after the menopause due to the declining production of oestrogen in the body.
Soy products contain phytoestrogens, a plant-derived substance similar to the body’s own hormone oestrogen. But despite the fact that soy is a daily food for many Vietnamese, Huong Nguyen’s study showed that its level of phytoestrogens was so low that it can’t be considered as a protective factor against osteoporosis. Prevention of diseases is very important not only from a health perspective, but it also contributes to the long-term economic development of the country.
Vitamin D is another important substance in this context due to its role in absorption of calcium and its storage in the bones. In a country where sun is strong and in abundance, the body’s production of vitamin D should be secured. But the second study conducted by Huong showed an alarming discovery: approximately 30 per cent of the women between the age of 13 and 83 years had a vitamin D deficiency, and for the women below the age of 30, the figures were up to 50 per cent. A veritable national health problem, but how was this possible?
"The ideal of female beauty with fair skin is so strong that women, especially in urban environment, avoid the sun by all means. They wear special blouses, trousers and even facial masks for protection. I have now started to disseminate my results at conferences and in the media to increase awareness about the problem with vitamin D deficiency, and the importance of exposing oneself to the sun," says Huong Nguyen.
Her research on osteoporosis started when a group of professors from the Karolinska Institutet (KI) visited Hanoi Medical University (HMU) in Hanoi. The young lecturer Huong Nguyen got a strong support for her idea for a research project and she came to Stockholm and Karolinska Institutet in 2003. Three years later, she began her research and in 2012, she presented her dissertation and got her doctor’s degree.
35 years of research cooperation
Sida’s support to graduate students has been an important part of the 35 years of research cooperation with Vietnam. In order to build the national research capacity, the central aspect has been to involve the country’s own university by using the so-called sandwich model. The students alternate between Vietnam and Sweden with mentors at both countries’ institutions. The research has been concentrating on existing problems in respective recipient country, and the Swedish Universities have offered expert scientists and well-equipped research environments.
"Without the support from Sida and Karolinska Institutet, it would have been very difficult to perform my research. I wouldn’t have had the same access to experts for continuous advices and guidance, or help to write my scientific article for a medical journal; in Vietnam we don’t have that kind of experience," says Huong Nguyen.
One advantage of combining Hanoi with Stockholm is that she has been able to immediately apply what she has learnt upon her return to Vietnam, and share the knowledge with her colleagues and her students.
But what she appreciates above all about the Swedish model is the ability to combine family life and research. With two small children at home, it would have been impossible for her to spend five years abroad.
"This has made it possible for me to do my PhD research while taking care of my family, which is very essential particularly for us women. And my research career, it has only started," she says and laughs.
Facts: research cooperation with Vietnam
The total support to Sida’s 35 year of research programme amounts to 341 million SEK, and has been carried out in three phases.
A total of 92 PhD and 99 Master students were trained at the reputable universities Karolinska Institutet, (KI), Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and Umeå University (2011). 53 PhD students defended their doctoral theses at the Swedish universities. The support has also been used for eg. laboratory equipment, libraries, network meetings, courses and conferences.
The aim of the research is to contribute to solving problems that are relevant in Vietnam, particularly in the areas of health, rural development, and biotechnology. This could contribute to a long-term poverty reduction as the country develops and people get a better life.
An increased research capacity can also create economic development by developing new products and jobs.
Huong Nguyens research on Osteoporosis:
Huong Nguyen’s studies at the Karolinska Institutet made her realize the importance of working as a team. Back in Vietnam she established her own research group. Today it has 51 members and many of them are graduated PhD students who work on their own research projects.
Read the summary of the Huong Nguyen's study on osteoporosis