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Open Access Highly Accessed Research

Association between early childhood exposure to malaria and children’s pre-school development: evidence from the Zambia early childhood development project

Günther Fink1*, Analia Olgiati2, Moonga Hawela3, John M Miller34 and Beatrice Matafwali5

Author Affiliations

1 Harvard School of Public Health, 665 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA

2 Center for Population and Development Studies, Harvard University, 9 Bow Street, Cambridge, MA, 02139, USA

3 National Malaria Control Centre (NMCC), Lusaka, Zambia

4 PATH Malaria Control and Evaluation Partnership in Africa (MACEPA), Lusaka, Zambia

5 University of Zambia, Lusaka, Zambia

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Malaria Journal 2013, 12:12  doi:10.1186/1475-2875-12-12

Published: 8 January 2013

Abstract

Background

Despite major progress made over the past 10 years, malaria remains one of the primary causes of ill health in developing countries in general, and in sub-Saharan Africa in particular. Whilst a large literature has documented the frequency and severity of malaria infections for children under-five years, relatively little evidence is available regarding the impact of early childhood malaria exposure on subsequent child development.

Methods

The objective of the study was to assess the associations between early childhood exposure to malaria and pre-school development. Child assessment data for 1,410 children in 70 clusters collected through the 2010 Zambian Early Childhood Development Project was linked with malaria parasite prevalence data from the 2006 Zambia Malaria Indicator Survey. Linear and logistic models were used to estimate the effect of early childhood exposure to malaria on anthropometric outcomes as well as on a range of cognitive and behavioural development measures.

Results

No statistically significant associations were found between parasite exposure and children’s height and weight. Exposure to the malaria parasite was, however, associated with lower ability to cope with cognitive tasks administered by interviewers (z-score difference −1.11, 95% CI −2.43–0.20), as well as decreased overall socio-emotional development as assessed by parents (z-score difference −1.55, 95% CI −3.13–0.02). No associations were found between malaria exposure and receptive vocabulary or fine-motor skills.

Conclusions

The results presented in this paper suggest potentially large developmental consequences of early childhood exposure to malaria. Continued efforts to lower the burden of malaria will not only reduce under-five mortality, but may also have positive returns in terms of the long-term well-being of exposed cohorts.

Keywords:
Malaria; Child development; Stunting; Underweight; Cognitive development