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Poor air quality in sub-Saharan Africa responsible for more infant deaths than previously thought

Assessing the relationship between air quality and mortality, a Stanford study finds that in 2015, exposure to air pollution in sub-Saharan Africa led to 400,000 otherwise preventable infant deaths.

Studies have shown that poor air quality is considered an important risk factor for premature mortality, particularly in developing countries with high levels of air pollution. Understanding the impact of air quality on health in poorer regions has traditionally been difficult, however, due to a lack of on-the-ground pollution monitors and data recording births.

Now, a study published in Nature assessed the impact of air quality on mortality rates among infants in sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers found that in 2015, exposure to particulate matter led to 400,000 otherwise preventable infant deaths, or 22 percent of infant deaths from 2001 to 2015.

The study combined 15 years of survey data on nearly 1 million births across sub-Saharan Africa with satellite-based measurements of particulate matter.

The findings, described in the video below, indicate that poor air quality is a much larger problem than previously believed, as the effects of particulate matter exposure on mortality is about three times larger than existing estimates.

A Stanford News press release clarifies:

The main explanation for these larger estimates, according to the study’s authors, is that exposure to particulate matter can lead to a range of negative health effects, including lower birth weight and impaired growth in the first year of life, beyond those typically considered in health analyses.

The research team, led by Sam Heft-Neal, PhD, a research scholar at the Stanford Center on Food Security and the Environment, also found that the number of infant deaths due to pollution affects both wealthy and poor families.

But modest reductions in air pollution could make a big difference. From the release:

'We find that if countries in Africa could achieve reductions in particulate matter exposure similar to wealthy countries, the benefits to infant health could be larger than nearly all currently used health interventions, such as vaccinations or food and water supplements.,' said Marshall Burke, [PhD], study co-author and assistant professor of Earth system science in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford.

The researchers conclude that priority should be given to finding cost-effective techniques and policies to reduce particulate matter exposure. “We now have a better sense of the immense benefits of air quality improvements for infant health,” said Heft-Neal. “Next we need to establish how these improvements can be achieved.”

Photo by iStockphoto/Sylvie Bouchard

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