Harvard-led research to quantify economic costs of stunted child cognitive development in resource-poor countries

April 23, 2013 — A comprehensive global study of the educational and economic impact of stunted cognitive development due to childhood illnesses and other adversities has been launched by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), with colleagues from across Harvard and other partner institutions.

With an award from the “Saving Brains” program of Grand Challenges Canada, which is funded by the Government of Canada, the researchers will use comprehensive data sources to develop comparable national, regional, and global estimates of the effects of major risk factors on childhood development, educational attainment, and the economic impact of those effects.

Risk factors to be studied include adverse health and nutrition during pregnancy, childhood infections and nutritional status, along with maternal depression and low education, which may result in inadequate child nurturing and stimulation. In addition to global and country-level analyses, more detailed examination will be done for two focus countries, Pakistan and Tanzania, where project collaborators have close ties and established working relationships.

Led by [[Wafaie Fawzi]], professor and chair of HSPH’s Department of Global Health and Population and Majid Ezzati of Imperial College London, the project brings together a multi-disciplinary team of clinicians, economists, epidemiologists, nutritional scientists, psychologists, disease and risk factor modelers, and statisticians.

The team hopes to use the project to engage with policy makers and practitioners around the world, Fawzi said. “We are excited to bring various disciplines together to find ways to reduce childhood risks, enhance educational attainment and, ultimately, economic gains later in life. We will engage researchers, policy makers and health advocates in both developed and developing countries to discuss the interpretation and dissemination of results and products. This project provides a unique opportunity to influence policy and practice related to children throughout the world.”

“The number of children dying each year worldwide has dropped dramatically in recent decades — from 16 million in 1970 to less than 8 million in 2011,” said Ezzati. “However, progress in improving children’s lives beyond survival has been slower. With over 170 million children not reaching their developmental potential, there is an urgent need to focus on quality of life. While adversities and illnesses in early childhood have been shown to affect children’s development, there is no comparable global analysis of the educational and economic impacts of these risk factors.”

Key researchers from HSPH include [[David Canning]], Richard Saltonstall Professor of Population Sciences and professor of economics and international health,[[Goodarz Danaei]], assistant professor of global health, and [[Gunther Fink]], assistant professor of international health economics. Lead collaborators from across Harvard include Jack  Shonkoff, Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development and director, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, and Mary Smith-Fawzi of Harvard Medical School. Other partnering institutions include Aga Khan University in Pakistan, and Ifakara Health Institute and Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences in Tanzania.

Grand Challenges Canada is dedicated to bold ideas with big impact and its Saving Brains program promotes the fulfillment of human capital potential by focusing on interventions that nurture and protect early brain development in the first 1,000 days of life.

Photo: iStockphoto/MShep2