Poor sanitation remains a major public health concern linked to several important health outcomes; emerging evidence indicates a link to childhood stunting. In India over half of the population defecates in the open; the prevalence of stunting remains very high. Recently published data on levels of stunting in 112 districts of India provide an opportunity to explore the relationship between levels of open defecation and stunting within this population. We conducted an ecological regression analysis to assess the association between the prevalence of open defecation and stunting after adjustment for potential confounding factors. Data from the 2011 HUNGaMA survey was used for the outcome of interest, stunting; data from the 2011 Indian Census for the same districts was used for the exposure of interest, open defecation. After adjustment for various potential confounding factors – including socio-economic status, maternal education and calorie availability – a 10 percent increase in open defecation was associated with a 0.7 percentage point increase in both stunting and severe stunting. Differences in open defecation can statistically account for 35 to 55 percent of the average difference in stunting between districts identified as low-performing and high-performing in the HUNGaMA data. In addition, using a Monte Carlo simulation, we explored the effect on statistical power of the common practice of dichotomizing continuous height data into binary stunting indicators. Our simulation showed that dichotomization of height sacrifices statistical power, suggesting that our estimate of the association between open defecation and stunting may be a lower bound. Whilst our analysis is ecological and therefore vulnerable to residual confounding, these findings use the most recently collected large-scale data from India to add to a growing body of suggestive evidence for an effect of poor sanitation on human growth. New intervention studies, currently underway, may shed more light on this important issue.
Spears, D.; Ghosh, A.; Cumming, O. Open Defecation and Childhood Stunting in India: An Ecological Analysis of New Data from 112 Districts. PLoS ONE (2013) 8 (9) e73784. [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073784]