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Heat exposure is worsening the issue of malnourished children

In a new study from Cornell University, experts report that exposure to extreme heat can lead to chronic and acute malnutrition among infants and children in low-income countries. The researchers say that the impacts of heat exposure threaten to reverse decades of progress. 

The study was focused on more than 32,000 West African children between the ages of three to 36 months. The researchers found that average heat exposure had increased the prevalence of stunted growth from chronic malnutrition by 12 percent, and of low weight from acute malnutrition by 29 percent.

“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 Professor Ariel Ortiz-Bobea. “What we are doing to reduce global poverty is being eroded by our lack of action on climate.”

If the average global temperature rises by two degrees Celsius – which could occur without significant reductions in carbon emissions – the average effect of heat exposure on stunting would nearly double, erasing gains recorded during the study period (1993 to 2014).

These findings have greatly concerned researchers, as temperatures in West Africa are rising and will continue to for several decades. The effects of acute and chronic malnutrition in early childhood – linked to higher mortality rates and to lower education and incomes in adulthood – are irreversible.

Meanwhile, improved incomes, infrastructure and child care practices during the study period helped reduce stunting across the five West African countries by 5.8 percentage points on average.

“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,” said Professor John Hoddinott. “Our work suggests these rising temperatures risk wiping out that progress.”

Strategies to reduce child malnutrition must consider the increased need for programs during periods of prolonged heat exposure.

The researchers acknowledge funding support from the African Development Bank through the Structural Transformation of African Agriculture and Rural Spaces (STAARS) project.

The study is published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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