Study of one lakh individuals finds why India’s children are anaemic

Nutrition imbalance: Overall, vitamin A and iron intake was lower than the recommended level.   | Photo Credit: B_JOTHI RAMALINGAM

Last month, during the festive season, an ad campaign urged Indian women to invest in iron-rich food and focus on whether they were anaemic. Around the same time, a Lancet Global Health report noted that 23% of Indian men suffered from anaemia. Adding to these findings, now a paper published in Scientific Reports points out that about 58.5% of children below five years of age in India are anaemic.

Factors at play

The team from Havard TH Chan School of Public Health analysed over one lakh children using the National Fertility and Health Survey (2015-16) data. They write that socio-demographic factors including wealth of the family, maternal education, maternal age, type of residence are the main reasons behind the incidence of childhood anaemia.

“Maternal education plays a very important role in reducing the incidence of childhood anaemia in any society and indeed in India. It increases the chances of mothers appreciating the issues involved and taking the correct and appropriate steps towards preventing it. Our study revealed an inverse relationship between the mother's education and incidence of childhood anaemia, in India.

In other words, as the mother’s education level increases, the tendency of the child to be anaemic decreases significantly,” explains Nkechi Onyeneho in an email to The Hindu. She is the first and corresponding author of the paper published in Scientific Reports.

The report notes that even the richest households had anaemic children. While 52.9% of children in the rich households were marked anaemic, the number was 63.2% in the poorest households. Overall, vitamin A and iron intake was also lower than the recommended level.

Meaningful intervention

Dr. Onyeneho explains that nutritional and iron deficiencies top the list of factors that predispose children to anaemia in India and these should be prioritised in any intervention. “From our previous study of intergenerational anaemia, we observed that in addition to maternal influence on childhood anaemia, paternal and overall household influences must be considered for a more comprehensive policy framework for intervention at the household level,” she adds.

Premature delivery

Previous studies from across the globe have shown that severe anaemia in mothers and premature delivery can also lead to childhood anaemia and so the mother’s health needs to be addressed as well.

Dr. Onyeneho says that the most shocking find for her was the inverse relationship between the age of mothers and the incidence of anaemia in children. The study showed that children of younger mothers are more anaemic. “While one may understand the powerlessness of mothers 15-19 years [old] in ensuring the children get the right food. It also reveals the power dimension in the household allocation and use of resources.” The team has now planned to study gender power relations in household and how it influences childhood anaemia in India.

The paper notes that though India has an anaemia control programme which recommends iron intake and folic acid supplements, the results show that the programme has not been a success.

The researchers urge immediate work be carried out to bridge the gap between policy and practice. They also call for a broader health strategy, to effectively address this issue.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 9:59:11 PM |

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