BackgroundEl Niño is responsible for natural disasters and infectious disease outbreaks worldwide. During the 1997–1998 El Niño, northern Peru endured extreme rainfall and flooding. Since short stature may occur as a result of undernutrition or repeated infections during childhood, both of which are highly prevalent during natural disasters, we sought to determine if the 1997–1998 El Niño had an adverse effect on stature and body composition a decade later. In 2008–2009, we measured height, weight, and bioimpedance in a random sample of 2,095 children born between 1991 and 2001 in Tumbes, Peru.
ResultsHeight-for-age increased by 0.09 SD/year of birth between 1991 and 1997 (P < 0.001), indicating overall improvements in health over time in the study area; however, this rate fell to 0.04 SD/year of birth during and shortly after El Niño, less than half the rate prior to El Niño (P = 0.046). Height shortfalls were even greater in children residing in households most likely to be flooded after El Niño. Any improvement over time was completely blunted and became negative in children living in households with flood likelihoods of ≥7% (P = 0.001). In the subset of 912 children with bioimpedance measurements, those born after the onset of El Niño had less lean mass (P < 0.001), whereas fat mass was unaffected (P = 0.48).
ConclusionsChildren born during and after 1997–1998 El Niño were on average shorter and had less lean mass for their age and sex than expected had El Niño not occurred. The effects of El Niño on health are long lasting and, given its cyclical nature, may continue to negatively impact future generations.