Background: Environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) refers to an incompletely defined syndrome of inflammation, reduced absorptive capacity, and reduced barrier function in the small intestine. It is widespread among children and adults in low- and middle-income countries. Understanding of EED and its possible consequences for health is currently limited.
Objective: A narrative review of the current understanding of EED: epidemiology, pathogenesis, therapies, and relevance to child health.
Methods: Searches for key papers and ongoing trials were conducted using PUBMED 1966-June 2014; ClinicalTrials.gov; the WHO Clinical Trials Registry; the Cochrane Library; hand searches of the references of retrieved literature; discussions with experts; and personal experience from the field.
Results: EED is established during infancy and is associated with poor sanitation, certain gut infections, and micronutrient deficiencies. Helicobacter pylori infection, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), abnormal gut microbiota, undernutrition, and toxins may all play a role. EED is usually asymptomatic, but it is important due to its association with stunting. Diagnosis is frequently by the dual sugar absorption test, although other biomarkers are emerging. EED may partly explain the reduced efficacy of oral vaccines in low- and middle-income countries and the increased risk of serious infection seen in children with undernutrition.
Conclusions: Despite its potentially significant impacts, it is currently unclear exactly what causes EED and how it can be treated or prevented. Ongoing trials involve nutritional supplements, water and sanitation interventions, and immunomodulators. Further research is needed to better understand this condition, which is of likely crucial importance for child health and development in low- and middle-income settings.