Prenatal and early-life exposure to the Great Chinese Famine increased the risk of tuberculosis in adulthood across two generations

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Nov 3;117(44):27549-27555. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2008336117. Epub 2020 Oct 19.


Global food security is a major driver of population health, and food system collapse may have complex and long-lasting effects on health outcomes. We examined the effect of prenatal exposure to the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1962)-the largest famine in human history-on pulmonary tuberculosis (PTB) across consecutive generations in a major center of ongoing transmission in China. We analyzed >1 million PTB cases diagnosed between 2005 and 2018 in Sichuan Province using age-period-cohort analysis and mixed-effects metaregression to estimate the effect of the famine on PTB risk in the directly affected birth cohort (F1) and their likely offspring (F2). The analysis was repeated on certain sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBI) to explore potential mechanisms of the intergenerational effects. A substantial burden of active PTB in the exposed F1 cohort and their offspring was attributable to the Great Chinese Famine, with more than 12,000 famine-attributable active PTB cases (>1.23% of all cases reported between 2005 and 2018). An interquartile range increase in famine intensity resulted in a 6.53% (95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.19-12.14%) increase in the ratio of observed to expected incidence rate (incidence rate ratio, IRR) in the absence of famine in F1, and an 8.32% (95% CI: 0.59-16.6%) increase in F2 IRR. Increased risk of STBBI was also observed in F2. Prenatal and early-life exposure to malnutrition may increase the risk of active PTB in the exposed generation and their offspring, with the intergenerational effect potentially due to both within-household transmission and increases in host susceptibility.

Keywords: Great Chinese Famine; food systems; infectious disease; nutrition; tuberculosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • China / epidemiology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Famine*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / immunology
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / epidemiology*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / immunology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / prevention & control
  • Risk Factors
  • Starvation / complications*
  • Starvation / immunology
  • Tuberculosis Vaccines / administration & dosage
  • Tuberculosis Vaccines / immunology
  • Tuberculosis, Pulmonary / epidemiology*
  • Tuberculosis, Pulmonary / immunology
  • Tuberculosis, Pulmonary / prevention & control
  • Young Adult


  • Tuberculosis Vaccines