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Nutrition disparities exist among children in low- and middle-income countries

Early nutrition plays a crucial role in a child’s overall growth and development. In low- and middle-income countries, undernutrition poses a significant threat to children and can lead to health problems, poor neurobehavioral and cognitive development and educational and economic setbacks later in life.

Dr. Paddy Ssentongo, an epidemiology doctoral student at Penn State College of Medicine, used data from demographic and health surveys to examine the prevalence of undernutrition in children, ages newborn to 5 years old. Ssentongo and other researchers looked at characteristics of undernutrition in children — such as stunting (impaired height for age), wasting (decay of muscle and fat tissue) and being underweight — and conducted a pooled analysis of 62 low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Oceania and Europe.

The investigators uncovered regional, sub-regional and country-level disparities. The most prevalent form of undernutrition in children was stunting (29.1%), followed by being underweight (13.7%) and wasting (6.3%).

Nearly one-third (32%) of the children in Africa exhibited stunting, and rates were also elevated in Asia (27.4%) and Oceania (27%). European children experienced the lowest rates of stunting (11.3%).

Children in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia had a higher risk of being underweight. The prevalence of underweight children in these two regions was more than 10 times that of children in Europe.

“With 45% of deaths in pre-school children attributed to undernutrition worldwide, our findings underscore the critical need for focused nutritional prevention, control and treatment strategies,” said Ssentongo, assistant professor at the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering. “The findings of our study could be used to develop strategies at regional and national levels to end undernutrition by 2030.”

The researchers noted that poverty negatively impacts childhood development and nutrition. Their results reveal that countries with a lower human development index (a country-specific indicator based on life expectancy, literacy, access to education and per capita gross domestic product) had a higher prevalence of undernutrition.

According to the researchers, children born into low-income families generally have impaired growth, poorer neurocognitive outcomes and fewer educational opportunities than children from wealthier families. Poor nutrition also contributes to higher rates of illness and disease. They said as this cycle of poverty and undernutrition continues, it perpetuates intergenerational setbacks and prevents areas from thriving.

The researchers found a substantial unexplained variance in undernutrition estimates that could not be explained by geographic locations or the human development index. Therefore, future characterization of the correlates of undernutrition in low- and middle-income countries should be expanded to include genomics, gut microbiota, ethnicity, diet composition, micronutrients, climate change and weather as possible determinants.

Anna Ssentongo, Djibril Ba, Vernon Chinchilli, Jessica Ericson and Steven Schiff of Penn State College of Medicine; Muzi Na and Xiang Gao of Penn State; and Claudio Fronterre of Lancaster University also contributed to this research. The researchers declare no conflicts of interest.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.

Read the full study in Scientific Reports

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