Child malnutrition, which leads to stunting (i.e. impaired growth and development of children) and wasting (i.e. the thinning of muscle and fat tissues), remains a major problem in West Africa despite years of progressive efforts to eradicate it. The 2019 UNICEF Global Nutrition Report shows that the rate of stunting in infants in West Africa under the age of 5 years is 29.2%; which is above the global average of 21.9%.
Before now, overpopulation, poverty, political instability and insecurity have only been thought to be the main reasons behind the high number of stunted children in West Africa. However, a recent research on “Temperature and Children’s Nutrition: Evidence from West Africa”, funded by the African Development Bank (AfDB), provides a much more fascinating angle to this story.
This research provides insight on how high temperatures (heat) can affect a child’s nutritional status, using anthropometric (study of the human body) and meteorological (weather) datasets covering 22-years (1993-2014) and 34,662 children for five connecting nations in West Africa whose maximum temperatures exceeds 30°C (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo).
Below are some key findings from the study:
1. A strong relationship exists between high temperature and child malnutrition in West Africa.
2. High temperature (above 30°C) can affect children’s nutrition through:
Heat-related illnesses: Children are more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses like heat cramps and heat stress -- because of their level of body development and because they cannot behaviorally react to high temperatures like adults.
Reduced calorie intake: High temperature could hinder plant growth, and therefore reduce the quality and quantity of agricultural produce in a locality. This can directly affect a child’s caloric intake, especially in rural areas where most families depend on their personal farming for food and income.
Heat-breeding diseases: It has been scientifically proven that many pathogens and vectors thrive in warm temperatures. A good example is the female anopheles’ mosquito which transmit malaria – it resulted in the deaths of over 308,000 infants in Africa in 2019.
Most of these effects can also lead to infant mortality/death, especially in rural communities, where there is little to no awareness about the situation.
3. Children between 33 - 35 months (nearly 3 years) old are at a higher risk of being stunted as a result of high temperatures (above 30°C). However, children are especially vulnerable to wasting at around 9 - 14 months of age (around 1 year old).
The first 1000 days (35 months or 3 years) of a child’s life is known to be a critical period of growth and development. Any prolonged exposure to high temperature and its related problems (above 30°C or for over 460 days) during this time can have temporary effects (like slow normal weight gain or weight loss), and permanent effects (such as stunting and poor brain development) lasting into adulthood.
What parents can do:
Sensitizing parents (especially in rural communities) on how high temperature could pose a great threat to the nutritional status of their children can help reduce the dangers posed by this threat. Parents can reduce the effect of high temperature by breastfeeding their infants more during hot weather conditions.
For children above breastfeeding age, increasing their fluid intake and reducing their level of exposure to high temperature will significantly help reduce these nutritional effects.
Still Craving? Find out more about this research experiment and the results on AFDB Working Paper
Author Credit: Ima-Abasi Joseph Pius