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Celebrating Five Years of the Doherty Institute

Indigenous Health

Reducing the burden of stunting in disadvantaged children

The World Health Organization defines stunting as the impaired growth and development that children experience from chronic undernutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation. 

“Stunted children have problems with higher morbidity and mortality in childhood, more infections and problems learning. They don’t reach their full developmental potential and are vulnerable to developing chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease later in life,” says University of Melbourne Professor Beverley Biggs from the Doherty Institute.

In 2016, Professor Biggs and University of Melbourne Dr Sarah Hanieh embarked on a study to assess stunting in children under the age of two in an Aboriginal population in North East Arnhem.

Together with collaborators, they were able to assess 70 per cent of children aged two years and under, and found the stunting rates to be similar to rates they previously found in rural Vietnam.

“This is reasonably high by world standards, even though Australia always reports very low rates of stunting overall,” explains Professor Biggs.

“It puts Aboriginal children at all sorts of risks and requires urgent attention.”

Professor Biggs, Dr Hanieh and collaborators are now working on defining gut health in these children as this is believed to be key to understanding and preventing stunting and the associated clinical consequences.

“We’ve been directed by the community on this project and we’re hoping to provide them with some answers, which they can build on to prevent stunting and chronic under nutrition in their kids. We have also worked closely with the two health services in the community,” says Professor Biggs.

This study follows research conducted by Professor Biggs’ team  in Vietnam, Bangladesh and Malawi in partnership with Professor Jane Fisher at Monash University and Associate Professor Sant-Rayn Pasricha at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute studying different maternal and child health interventions. Most recently, the group developed a predicative tool for infants who are at risk of stunting in later childhood.

“Universal measures to prevent child stunting have not worked well and we’re hoping our research will contribute to new initiatives to move the field forward for the better health of all children in disadvantaged settings,” says Professor Biggs.

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