New Delhi: Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, number of babies in India born with a low birth weight rose sharply — by about three per cent, a new study has found. Babies born during the pandemic were also found to be at double the risk of having a low weight at birth.

The increase in babies born with a low weight could impact the development of “human capital” in the long term, as these infants are known to often “struggle with school”, corresponding author Santosh Kumar, an associate professor of development and global health economics at the University of Notre Dame, US, said.

“Children who have lower birth weight as infants often go on to struggle with school and this limits their capacity to develop what economists often call ‘human capital’ — the key knowledge and skills that will affect their ability to earn a good living and support themselves and their families,” Kumar said.

Roughly one in every four babies (3 crore) around the world are born with a low weight, which the World Health Organization (WHO) defines as being less than 2.5 kilograms.

About 95 per cent of these babies are born in low- and middle-income countries, with around half being born in South Asia, according to the authors of the study published in the journal Communications Medicine.

In this study, the researchers found that babies born between April 2020 and April 2021 weighed less than the WHO-defined limit, compared to those born before the pandemic.

Over two lakh infants were analysed, of which 12,000 were born during the pandemic and about 1,92,000 born pre-pandemic. Data was taken from the fifth round of the Indian National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), conducted during 2019-2021.

“The low birth weight prevalence rate (among babies) is 20 per cent in the pandemic cohort and 17 per cent in the pre-pandemic cohort,” the authors wrote in the study, which they claimed is the first one to look at how the pandemic affected birth outcomes in India using a nationally representative sample.

On average, birth weights during the pandemic years were found to be lowered by 11 grams.

The authors also found that babies born during the pandemic were at double the risk of having a low birth weight compared to those born pre-pandemic.

While a significant number of pandemic-affected children were observed in rural areas and socially disadvantaged communities, the researchers found that a large number of babies from the richest households were also impacted.

Multiple factors related to the pandemic, including COVID-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus, stress related to social distancing, economic upheaval and the disruption of maternal and neonatal care, may have affected the health behaviours of pregnant women and contributed to lower birth weights, Kumar said.

  • Published On Jul 3, 2024 at 02:54 PM IST

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