Page last updated at 23:17 GMT, Sunday, 28 March 2010 00:17 UK

Iraqi children's growth stunted by war, says study

A young Iraqi child
The Iraq war meant hardship for many young children

Iraqi children born in the most violent areas are shorter than those born in other parts of the country, UK researchers have found.

The team looked at data from Iraq's central statistics office and said under-fives from these areas were on average 0.8cm (0.3in) shorter.

Low height can be linked to poor diet and sanitation.

The University of London work is being presented at the Royal Economic Society annual conference.

The author says the study shows the conflict damaged children's health.

The study analysed the height of children during the the first three years of the war and found that "stunting" was a serious problem among those born in provinces in the south and centre of Iraq which experienced the worst violence.

The short height of these children is likely to reflect poor quality food intake
Gabriela Guerrero-Serdan, Royal Holloway

But the data showed that, although these children were shorter than their counterparts from safer areas, they did not necessarily weigh less.

The report suggests that the problem was therefore likely to be linked to the quality, rather than quantity, of food.

The study also found that the height difference was most pronounced in children's first year of life. It suggests that this could reflect deterioration in the health of the mother while pregnant.

Long-term impact

The author, Gabriela Guerrero-Serdan from the department of economics at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: "At first sight, it is easier to see if a child is malnourished by looking at his or her weight, which is often synonymous with hunger.

"Low height, however, which relates more to protein intake, is not as easy to identify just by looking at a child.

"Unlike weight, which can be gained at any period of life by eating more food, we cannot necessarily grow more in height after our period of growth has passed.

"The short height of these children is likely to reflect poor quality food intake, and also more disease and diarrhoea.

"Power failures which affected water supplies and refrigeration are likely to have added to the problem.

"Early life development and growth are connected and important, because children who are well-nourished are more likely to be healthy, productive and able to learn in the future."

Professor Peter Emery, head of nutrition and dietetics at King's College London, said: "Stunting does not necessarily mean that the quality of the diet is low in terms of protein content.

"It is more likely to indicate chronically low quantity of food, together with poor sanitation and access to healthcare."

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