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Rainfall, other climate-driven factors may impact nutrition, child development in Uganda

The amount of rainfall in Ugandan villages may be able to predict areas where preschool children are at risk of impaired growth, according to Penn State College of Medicine researchers. They examined how climate-driven factors, like rainfall, may contribute to food insecurity and poor nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa.

The study found that villages with higher rainfall amounts were associated with better nutritional outcomes among young children, such as healthy height. They believe the quantity and variety of crops villages with more rain are able to produce affect these growth rates.

The vast majority of Uganda’s population relies on rain-fed, self-grown crops to feed their families. Due to financial constraints, many people eat diets consisting of starchy foods, like potatoes and plantains, which often lack adequate micronutrients and proteins and can negatively impact children’s development. One example of a negative outcome from malnutrition is stunting, which occurs when a child’s height is low in relation to their age.

Dr. Paddy Ssentongo, an epidemiology doctoral student, led a team of researchers that analyzed more than 40 crops and their role in supporting childhood growth. They examined data from more than 5,000 preschool children, along with climate and weather information, to explore links between climate change, geographical conditions and crops to see how these factors correlate to stunting.

“Our work is important for precision public health approaches to prevent, control and mitigate childhood undernutrition in global populations,” said Ssentongo, research assistant professor at the Center for Neural Engineering in the Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics at Penn State College of Engineering.

Malnourished children are prone to infections and have a higher risk of adverse health outcomes. These cognitive, physical and nutritional impairments can lead to reduced intellectual ability and educational attainment, and later in life, can contribute to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and lower economic productivity.

The research team said a key takeaway from the study is the link between precipitation and stunting. Uganda is a rain-fed country that depends heavily on agricultural productivity for nutrition. Ssentongo said that climatic and environmental factors driving village-level rates of malnutrition in Uganda are not fully understood.

According to the researchers, the fact that more nutritious crops tend to need higher amounts of rain for growth may mediate the relationship between rainfall and nutritional outcomes. The data showed that children living in villages with higher annual rainfall totals had significantly better nutrition, especially if they lived in an area that grew seeds and nuts. Legumes, cereals and seeds were some of the most rain-dependent, nutritious crops that showed the greatest impact on child growth.

“Although the study results are not surprising, we performed comprehensive and rigorous work to establish a significant relationship between environmental factors and childhood growth in Uganda,” said Vernon Chinchilli, Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences.

The researchers found that higher annual rainfall totals were significantly associated with children’s linear growth. Dry regions throughout Uganda could benefit from irrigation systems and drought-tolerant crops to increase the availability of water and reduce dry conditions.

Ssentongo said that because developing countries have limited resources, legumes and other plant-based proteins could be a cost-effective way to improve nutrition in areas where animal-based proteins are too expensive or not readily available. He also said that areas could improve their local economies by expanding beyond subsistence farming by planting additional crops that could yield extra income to buy more nutritious foods or increase the local food supply.

Djibril Ba of Penn State College of Medicine and Claudio Fronterre of Lancaster University also contributed to this study.

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