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IQ, infection quotient

Frequent stomach infections in early childhood can cause malnutrition and lower IQ.

health and fitness Updated: Jun 12, 2012 13:09 IST
Sanchita Sharma

When it comes to infection control, forewarned is not always forearmed. Now that summer is here and countless bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites have laid siege on everything we eat or drink, scores of people, especially children, are falling prey to a gaggle of gastroenteritis-causing viruses, bacteria and parasites.

But a little known fact is that stomach infections cause more than just inconvenient runnies. Frequent diarrhoeal infections during the first two years of life impair brain development, shows more than one study.

A longitudinal study of Peruvian children over nine years showed that after adjusting for socioeconomic, schooling and other significant factors, malnutrition and gastrointestinal infection in early childhood lowered brain function in later life, reported The Lancet.

Diarroheal infections further lower immunity, exposing malnourished children to host of secondary infections, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia.

“Enteric infection is the leading cause of malnutrition of diarrhoea among children aged between one and five years. If its most common symptom, severe dehydration, is not corrected properly, it causes to malnutrition and impaired cognitive development,” Dr Jaydeep Mazumdar, research scientist at National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases, Kolkata.

Threat perception

Every year, over 200 million children under 5 years in developing countries fail to reach their full cognitive potential, says the World Health Organisation’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health. In India, 46% children are underweight, 38% are stunted and 70% are anaemic, shows data from the National Family Health Survey-3 (NFHS-3), the country’s largest survey to provide information on population, health and nutrition from 29 states.

The symptoms for most are fairly similar and include diarrhoea, with or without fever, headache, vomiting and abdominal cramps. Antibiotics such as doxycycline or penicillin work against bacteria, but if the cause of the disease is a virus, you just have to bide your time and wait for the infection to get over in its natural course.

If you make sure the water you are drinking is safe, half the battle is won. Safe water lowers risk of a clutch of stomach-afflictions such as diarrhoea, dysentery, Hepatitis A and C, and typhoid.

While boiling drinking water for 5 minutes makes it safe, you must also ensure that the raw fruits and vegetable you eat have also been rinsed properly in clean, preferably boiled, water. Even if raw vegetables have been handled by someone with dirty hands, you are at risk of infection, so it’s safer not to eat uncooked food at places where the state of hygiene is suspect.

The other diseases to watch out for are eye and fungal infections — which can be countered by keeping the skin dry, especially after a swim.

Lowering risk

Following basic hygiene like washing hands frequently, not sharing towels, napkins or eye makeup can lower risk of conjunctivitis and fungal infections. A meta-analysis of 30 studies in 2008 showed that improvements in hand hygiene alone reduced gastrointestinal illness by 31%, while a more recent review showed that hand washing with soap resulted in a 48% reduction in diarrhoea in children under five years, reports the American Journal of Public Health.

“Most children are not taught healthy, sanitary and personal hygiene habits properly, such as washing hands regularly, especially before and after eating, and bathing daily. Apart from mal-absorption of nutrients that causes malnutrition, which in turn results in growth and cognitive impairments, frequent infection also causes absenteeism from school, and the learning process suffers as a result,” says Dr Sanjeev Bagai, senior paediatrician, Delhi.


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