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TO ADULT eyes, eating dirt is disgusting. Nonetheless, young children do it routinely. How harmful the habit truly is has never been established. But Mduduzi Mbuya and Jean Humphrey of Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, who work with children in Zimbabwe,think it can be very harmful indeed. They suspect, as they write in Maternal and Child Nutrition, that in places like Zimbabwe, where chickens roam freely and what is on the ground is thus full of droppings, it is responsible for stunting infant growth. One child in five is so afflicted. And stunting’s effects are not merely physical. Stunted children also do badly at school, affecting both their own futures and those of the countries they live in. Solving stunting, however, is not merely a question of better nutrition. A study on food programmes carried out in 2008, by Kathryn Dewey and Seth Adu-Afarwuah of the University of California, Davis, concluded that even the most effective of these led to a reduction in stunting of only 30%. Stunting, then, has other causes as well.

Searching the literature, Dr Mbuya and DrHumphrey found that two pertinent things happen when unfriendly microbes of the sort found in chicken droppings get into the intestine. One is a loss of villi, the finger-like projections from the gut wall that absorb nutrients. The other is a loosening of the joints between the cells that line the gut. This creates holes through which microbes of all sorts can pass into the bloodstream, where they stimulate the immune system. That diverts nutrients needed elsewhere. It also causes the production of chemicals called cytokines which, among other things, switch off the production of growth hormone. Dr Mbuya and Dr Humphrey have thus laid out how chicken droppings may cause stunting. That they actually do so remains to be proved. Astrawin the wind, though, is research done in Ethiopia by Derek Headey and Kalle Hirvonen of the International Food Policy Research Institute, in Washington, DC. DrHeadey and Dr Hirvonen found that households which kept poultry indoors had a significantly higher rate of child stunting than those that kept the birds outside—some what ironic, as government policy is to encourage children to eat eggs precisely in order to prevent stunting.

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The SHINE Supplement was published in December 2015 in the Clinical Infectious Diseases Journal and is available on open-access.

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About Zvitambo

The Zvitambo Institute for Maternal and Child Health Research is a multidisciplinary Zimbabwean organization that has developed and attracted expertise in various areas of biomedical and applied research and programming in the areas of maternal health, child health and growth, immunology, HIV/AIDS, nutrition, food security and livelihoods, WASH and counseling

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