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Childhood stunting in developing countries

The tireless challenge


Certain countries worldwide face numerous challenges that decrease their populations' quality of life; some include hunger, poverty and rising harmful emissions, which are complicated to resolve. This is because international cooperation is needed to tackle them effectively. 

Furthermore, they are associated with stunting, defined as diminished growth and development that children experience because of undernutrition or lack of sufficient nutrients, frequent infections and deficient psychosocial interventions, according to the World Health Organisation. 

With this definition in mind, this article will delve into stunting and malnutrition before discussing how stunting is linked to infectious diseases and harmful emissions and steps forward to reduce this condition in developing countries, as shown in Figure 2

Undernutrition and stunting

Stunting is one of the consequences of undernutrition, possibly due to reduced synthesis of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in the body, leading to amplified growth hormone (6). As for the determinants of undernutrition, a paper from Brazil found socioeconomic characteristics like family income and biological ones such as age notably linked to undernutrition.


Another result of undernutrition is being underweight. A systematic review from Ethiopia focusing on nutrition in 5-year-old children amalgamated 18 studies. It estimated that stunting and being underweight had 42% and 33% prevalence, respectively; it could be inferred that undernutrition is linked to stunting. 

Additionally, a paper that used data from 32 Sub-Saharan African countries discovered that providing maternal health insurance (MHI) reduces stunting and being underweight, which is more apparent in girls than boys. In turn, MHI is necessary for supporting children’s health.

Non-nutritional factors and stunting

As for infections and stunting, an article highlighted that children with stunted growth are vulnerable to diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases besides malaria. Moreover, conditions worsen undernutrition, causing a vicious cycle between them, manifesting into growth defects.

Furthermore, a systematic review of 80 studies found a connection between helminth infections and stunting, but insufficient evidence supported this hypothesis. With this said, there may need to be additional studies to investigate this further.

With undernutrition’s impact on the immune system, newborns and small children with extreme protein deficiency have smaller thymuses and underdeveloped peripheral lymphoid organs, leading to immunological cell defects such as reduced T-cell count.

Before concluding this article, exposure to harmful emissions is a recurring problem that affects everyone, including children. Different observational studies proposed that inhaling nitrogen oxide and particulate matter in utero could modify DNA methylation, possibly influencing foetal growth. 


Reflecting on all the evidence in this article, stunting in developing countries is heading in a direction where it could become problematic. However, according to findings from UNICEF, stunting has gradually reduced between 2000 and 2020 in children under 5 years old. Nevertheless, awareness of stunting in developing countries is critical because it is the first step to tackling this health issue.    

Written by Sam Jarada

Related article: Depression in children


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