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Child malnutrition gets worsened by extreme heat exposure: Study

by Pragati Singh

According to Cornell University study, excessive heat worsens both chronic and acute malnutrition in newborns and young children in low-income nations, potentially reversing decades of progress.

The findings were reported in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. A study of more than 32,000 West African children ages 3-36 months that linked survey and geocoded meteorological data spanning more than 20 years discovered that average heat exposure increased the incidence of stunted development from chronic malnutrition by 12% and low weight from acute malnutrition by 29%.

According to the researchers, if the average global temperature rises by 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists warn is likely in the absence of significant reductions in carbon emissions, the average effect of heat exposure on stunting would nearly double, wiping out gains made during the study period (1993 to 2014).

The findings are concerning, according to the researchers, because temperatures in West Africa are rising and are predicted to continue for several decades. And the consequences of acute and chronic malnutrition in childhood, which have been related to greater death rates as well as poorer education and income levels in adulthood, are permanent.

“We’re talking about children at a very young age that will have changes for the rest of their lives, so this is permanently scarring their potential,” said Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, an associate professor and applied agricultural economist at Cornell. “What we are doing to reduce global poverty is being eroded by our lack of action on climate.”

Ortiz-Bobea and John Hoddinott, a Cornell professor of food and nutrition economics and policy, co-authored “Heat exposure and child nutrition: Evidence from West Africa,” which was published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.

Sylvia Blom, a Cornell Ph.D. graduate who is currently a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame, is the paper’s primary author.

The researchers suggest that strategies to prevent child hunger will need to account for higher programme demands during periods of extended heat exposure.

Meanwhile, over the research period, increased incomes, infrastructure, and child care practises helped lower stunting by 5.8 percentage points on average among the five West African nations.

“While this progress has been welcomed in West Africa and in other low- and middle-income countries, it’s occurring against the backdrop of rising temperatures and an increased likelihood of extreme weather events,” Hoddinott said. “Our work suggests these rising temperatures risk wiping out that progress.”

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