Background: Children living at high altitudes often have delayed growth, but whether growth retardation is related to altitude or to other factors is not known.
Methods: A multicultural health care team assessed 2078 Tibetan children 0 to 84 months of age for anthropometric and clinical signs of malnutrition. The children lived in 11 counties, which contained more than 50 diverse urban and nonurban (nomadic, agricultural, or periurban) communities in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The height and weight of the children were compared with those of U.S. children. Height and weight were expressed as z scores (the number of standard deviations from the median of the age- and sex-specific reference group).
Results: The mean z score for height fell from -0.5 to -1.6 in the first 12 months of life and generally ranged from -2.0 to -2.4 in older children. Overall, of 2078 children, 1067 (51 percent) had moderately or severely stunted growth, as defined by a z score of -2.0 or lower. Of the 1556 children 24 months of age or older, 871 (56 percent) had stunted growth, which was severe (z score, -3.0 or lower) in 380 (24 percent). Among the children in this age group, 787 of the 1313 nonurban children (60 percent) had stunting, as compared with 84 of the 243 urban children (35 percent). Stunting was associated with clinical conditions such as rickets, abdominal distention, hair depigmentation, and skin lesions and with a maternal history of hepatitis or goiter. Stunting was not associated with altitude, after adjustment for the type of community.
Conclusions: In Tibetan children, severe stunting due to malnutrition occurs early in life, and morbidity is high.