Risk Factors for Childhood Stunting in 137 Developing Countries: A Comparative Risk Assessment Analysis

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  • Dan Campbell, USAID Water Communications and Knowledge Management Project
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Risk Factors for Childhood Stunting in 137 Developing Countries: A Comparative Risk Assessment Analysis

Risk Factors for Childhood Stunting in 137 Developing Countries: A Comparative Risk Assessment Analysis at Global, Regional, and Country Levels . PLoS Medicine, November 2016.

Background - Stunting affects one-third of children under 5 y old in developing countries, and 14% of childhood deaths are attributable to it. A large number of risk factors for stunting have been identified in epidemiological studies. However, the relative contribution of these risk factors to stunting has not been examined across countries. We estimated the number of stunting cases among children aged 24–35 mo (i.e., at the end of the 1,000 days’ period of vulnerability) that are attributable to 18 risk factors in 137 developing countries.

Methods and Findings - We classified risk factors into five clusters: maternal nutrition and infection, teenage motherhood and short birth intervals, fetal growth restriction (FGR) and preterm birth, child nutrition and infection, and environmental factors. We combined published estimates and individual-level data from population-based surveys to derive risk factor prevalence in each country in 2010 and identified the most recent meta-analysis or conducted de novo reviews to derive effect sizes. We estimated the prevalence of stunting and the number of stunting cases that were attributable to each risk factor and cluster of risk factors by country and region.

The leading risk worldwide was FGR, defined as being term and small for gestational age, and 10.8 million cases (95% CI 9.1 million–12.6 million) of stunting (out of 44.1 million) were attributable to it, followed by unimproved sanitation, with 7.2 million (95% CI 6.3 million–8.2 million), and diarrhea with 5.8 million (95% CI 2.4 million–9.2 million). FGR and preterm birth was the leading risk factor cluster in all regions. Environmental risks had the second largest estimated impact on stunting globally and in the South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia and Pacific regions, whereas child nutrition and infection was the second leading cluster of risk factors in other regions.

Although extensive, our analysis is limited to risk factors for which effect sizes and country-level exposure data were available. The global nature of the study required approximations (e.g., using exposures estimated among women of reproductive age as a proxy for maternal exposures, or estimating the impact of risk factors on stunting through a mediator rather than directly on stunting). Finally, as is standard in global risk factor analyses, we used the effect size of risk factors on stunting from meta-analyses of epidemiological studies and assumed that proportional effects were fairly similar across countries.

Conclusions - FGR and unimproved sanitation are the leading risk factors for stunting in developing countries. Reducing the burden of stunting requires a paradigm shift from interventions focusing solely on children and infants to those that reach mothers and families and improve their living environment and nutrition.

Dan Campbell
USAID Water Communications and Knowledge Management Project
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Arlington, VA 22209
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  • JKMakowka
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Re: Important study on sanitation and stunting

Thanks for sharing this!

I find it a bit confusing that they have a risk category that is called "Maternal nutrition and infection" (but with rather limited scope: height, underweight, malaria and hemoglobin/iron deficiency), and then another rather ambiguous category of "Fetal growth restrictions". The latter being defined as something like being "born small & underweight", but with no causal effect-relation explained.

It seems like they were aware of this logical hole in their categories and later refer to other studies for possible causes (maternal malnutrition of proteins & miro-nutrients), but then their initial categorization is somewhat misleading:

The large burden of stunting attributable to FGR is perhaps unsurprising given that prenatal restricted growth is logically strongly related to postnatal restricted growth; nevertheless, our findings serve to further emphasize the importance of early intervention during pregnancy. Several recent reviews have identified maternal iron, balanced protein-energy, and multiple micronutrient supplementation as the most effective interventions to alleviate FGR [17,47]. However, providing these interventions before pregnancy or in its early months is logistically difficult because in many developing countries, the majority of pregnant women start attending antenatal clinics in their second or third trimester.


In addition I think we really need to be more careful with keeping indicators separate from actual causes or negative effects. This paper makes it sound like stunting (basically defined as "being short for your age") by itself is something negative, but it is just an easy to measure indicator with a strong correlation to a series of childhood development deficiencies.

We run the risk of having the same effect as with hand-washing which is often promoted as a mean to itself, while likely only having a smaller positive effect on hygiene by itself. It is much more of an indirect indicator for generally improved hygiene behavior and awareness.

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