Addressing the links between intestinal pathogens, livestock, and children’s gut health
Environmental enteric dysfunction, also called EED, is characterized by a chronic inflammation of the gut. It is a silent health problem in middle to low-income countries—and pathogens affecting the intestines are thought to play a role in its development.
Children and adults who have EED may not have pain or clear symptoms, but they are more likely to experience certain infections and nutritional deficiencies. The tiny finger-like villi that line their intestines are flatter than those seen in healthy people, with implications for reduced nutritional absorption.
EED is especially problematic for children because it is strongly linked to stunting, a condition where children are statistically much shorter than average. This in turn is linked to lower economic, educational, and health attainment, increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, and even reduced life spans and quality of life. In 2020, stunting affected 149 million children under the age of five, globally.
Researchers lack a clear understanding of what causes EED, how to eliminate it, or even what environmental, hygienic, or nutritional interventions might mitigate its effects. But there are some clues that are helping bring the problem into clearer focus.
For example, sometimes the pathogens that promote EED are transmitted by livestock. Better understanding the connections between livestock and children’s gut health could lead to interventions to break the cycle of exposure and infections — and improve child nutrition.