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Growing obesity in Africa could worsen infant mortality

August 8, 2012 |  3:33 pm

As obesity becomes a bigger problem in much of Africa, babies already at high risk in the region could face new danger, a study published Wednesday in the Lancet medical journal suggests.

Although the perils of obesity for pregnant mothers and their babies are already known, researchers said they knew of no other studies on the problem in poorer countries. To see whether the same risks existed in less affluent areas, researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine examined maternal obesity rates and infant mortality in many African countries south of the Sahara, analyzing survey data on more than 81,000 pregnancies between 2003 and 2009.

Babies born to overweight or obese mothers in Africa are markedly more likely to die than those born to mothers of optimum weight, just as in wealthier countries, the study found. Obese mothers were about 50% more likely to lose their babies in the first four weeks of life, even when accounting for maternal age, education and other factors linked to infant mortality.

The familiar findings are "reassuring in a scientific sense but also alarming," Danish researcher Ellen A. Nohr wrote in response to the study. "Complications attributable to maternal obesity in low-income countries may far outnumber the burden seen in affluent countries."

The discovery that neonatal dangers are likely to increase along with obesity rates means the trend imperils babies in a region where neonatal death rates are already the highest in the world.

Women in the region now have much lower rates of obesity than in Europe and North America; only 5% of the women in the study were obese compared with 25% in England, researchers wrote.

But obesity rates are projected to jump dramatically as diets shift and people become less active, potentially growing to affect 17.5% of adults in the region within the next two decades.

"We now need more research to confirm the exact causes of death for these babies and a strategy to educate women in these countries about maintaining a healthy weight during pregnancy," lead author Jenny Cresswell told the Lancet.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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