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High temperatures linked to child malnutrition in West Africa

A malnourished baby receives treatment at Boulmiougou Hospital in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on April 15. (Sophie Garcia/AP)
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For many, high temperatures are a daily reality. But sultry days aren’t just uncomfortable — they can be downright unhealthy. Research has linked high temperatures with lower birth weights and higher rates of infant death.

Now, a study draws connections between high temperatures and childhood malnutrition. As temperatures continue to rise, researchers warn, malnutrition in low-income countries will, too — potentially undoing decades of progress.

Published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, the paper draws on weather information and data from health surveys collected on over 32,000 3- to 36-month-olds in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo between 1993 and 2014. Fourteen percent of them had wasting, a form of malnutrition diagnosed when children are a low weight for their height. Thirty-one percent had stunted growth, which occurs when children have a low height for their age.

The study found that for every 100 hours of exposure to a temperature above 95 degrees, the stunting rate increased by 5.9 percent. Children who had experienced 14 days of temperatures between 86 and 95 degrees within the past 90 days had 2.2 percent more wasting, which occurs due to recent malnutrition.

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In the past two decades, the researchers write, stunting is 12 percent more prevalent in children with the most exposure to average temperatures over 95 degrees in West Africa.

The more time the children spent in heat, the more it affected their nutrition. And in the future, the researchers say, things may get worse. If the average global temperature rises just 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — a likely scenario if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced — the stunting rate is projected to nearly double, erasing recent gains in the region.

“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 University and a study co-author, in a news release. “What we are doing to reduce global poverty is being eroded by our lack of action on climate.”

Although the researchers say the children exposed to the highest temperatures were not more likely to have diseases than their counterparts, they note that those children ate less animal-source protein. There could be a variety of reasons heat and malnutrition are linked, the study suggests; more research is needed to learn why.