Keeping animals out of home key to improved nutrition

A woman feeds grains to poultry in her backyard
A woman feeds grains to poultry in her backyard Copyright: Panos

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  • Researchers analysed growth data of Gambian children living in a village
  • Those whose parents lived in better housing devoid of animals had better health
  • Policymakers should target more hygienic housing to improve child health

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[CAPE TOWN] Keeping animals out of the home may improve childhood nutrition and reduce instances of stunting, according to a study undertaken in a Gambian village.
The study analysed 230 children of Gambian staff living at the Medical Research Unit in rural Keneba between 1993 and 2009. The staff included scientists, physicians, laboratory technicians and support staff, such as cleaners. The population was chosen because of its diversity of wealth, education housing conditions and access to free health services.
“Not surprising, those with the lowest socio-economic scores had the shortest, most stunted children, and the gradient wasn’t as big as we’d expected,” says co-author Andrew Prentice, professor of international nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “The group at the top, however, had the widest variation.”

“We speculate the key issue to combat malnutrition is piped water and keeping animals out of the home.”

Andrew Prentice, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Half of children in this upper grouping lived in Western-style housing with running water, flushable toilets and kept animals out of the home. The other half lived within the village without similar amenities.
Comparisons of these children showed that those living in Western-style houses grew well, with no incidents of stunting or underweight. Children in the village fared less well, with below average height and weight.
According to the 2017 WHO Africa Nutrition Report, 58.5 million children suffered stunting—being too short for one’s age—in 2016. The WHO global targets include a 40 per cent reduction of the number of low-weight-for-height children under five years old by 2025.
Keeping animals such as poultry, which can be disease carriers, free range in the home can contribute to childhood diseases that exacerbate malnutrition, Prentice explains. “We speculate the key issue [to combat malnutrition] is piped water and keeping animals out of the home,” he says.

The research, which was published in BMC Medicine on 1 November, was limited to the Gambia. Doug Mombert, a doctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, says that context and culture vary significantly across the Africa continent, which needs to be taken into account when making policy decisions around animal husbandry and smallholder farming.
Nonetheless, policymakers would benefit from integrating the study’s findings into their policies and implementation plans, Mombert says, to “better articulate and address the intricacies of water, sanitation and hygiene in various contexts”.
“Targeted research on the governance of WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] in relation to health-related outcomes is imperative to address the burden of child undernutrition,” Momberg says.
 This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.