Children born, living in high-altitude areas may have slower growth compared to those in lower altitudes, reveals study
Specific interventions must be devised for children born and growing up in hilly or mountainous regions, noted a study which observed over 9 lakh children from 59 countries between 1992 and 2018
In April 2006, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released the new international Child Growth Standards for infants and young children, which are basic guidelines for parents, doctors, policymakers and child advocates to better understand when the nutrition and healthcare needs of children are not being met. The announcement of these new global standards was considered to be a big deal because of some of the claims it made.
“The new WHO Child Growth Standards confirm that children born anywhere in the world and given the optimum start in life have the potential to develop to within the same range of height and weight,” the WHO news release stated.
“Naturally there are individual differences among children, but across large populations, regionally and globally, the average growth is remarkably similar," it added.
However, a recently published study in JAMA Pediatrics claims that these standards were not tested on populations living 1,500 metres above sea level.
The study revealed that children born and raised in higher altitude areas are at a higher risk of having a lower trajectory of growth than their counterparts in lower altitudes, and so, specific interventions must be devised for children from these communities.
Child growth trajectories in higher altitudes
In this large study, the growth of over 9 lakh children from birth to five years of age was observed between 1992 and 2018. About 96,552 clusters of data were collected from 59 countries, and the populations studied lived in different altitudes ranging from 372 to 5,951m above sea level.
To understand the implications of the WHO Child Growth Standards, the researchers took into account all the factors associated with the ideal home environment for all the children, including access to safe water, sanitation and healthcare. A comparison of the growth trajectories of children in higher altitudes was then made with those of children from lower altitudes.
The study found that around 12 percent of the global population lives in areas that are 1,500m above sea level, which translates to around 84.2 crore people. About 67 percent of this population resides in Asian or African countries. Of the 9 lakh children observed in this study, 11 pecent were born and lived in areas that are 1,500m above sea level.
These children were born at shorter length compared to their counterparts from the plains and remained at a lower growth trajectory. Even with ideal home environments, this growth trajectory did not change at all. The 2006 WHO standards worked, but only for children born and raised in areas up to 500m above sea level.
In its conclusion, the study mentions that their findings do not suggest that any altitude-specific adjustments need to be made to the 2006 WHO Child Growth Standards. But given that children born and growing up in hilly or mountainous regions do have stunted height growth, specific attention and healthcare guidance to remedy this situation is needed. These guidelines to increase the growth trajectories should be implemented during pregnancy and early childhood development in high-altitude communities and populations.
For more information, read our article on Newborn, Infant and Child Healthcare.
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