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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Infants given a traditional Guatemalan drink in the first month of life are almost twice as likely to have stunted growth than other children, according to a new study.
"We believe that aguitas may be part of the explanation for the high child stunting prevalence in Guatemala," lead author Colleen Doak told Reuters Health by email.
The herbal infusions known as aguitas come in many forms, including cinnamon, chamomile and mint. Indigenous Guatemalans believe the drinks help ease colic and diarrhea and improve general health.
Doak, of VU University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and her colleagues surveyed about 450 mothers with children under two years old. Nearly 80 percent of their babies had been given aguitas, and a quarter of those were first given the drink before the age of three weeks.
Half of the babies who had been given aguitas within the first three weeks of life had stunted growth, compared to 35 percent of all other children, according to results in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines stunted growth as length below the 5th percentile of the WHO Child Growth Standards. A three month old boy shorter than 22.8 inches, for example, is considered stunted.
The researchers did not follow the children beyond the age of two years. Other studies, however, have found that stunted children tend to perform worse in school and are more likely to be obese and have diabetes or high blood pressure, Dr. Peter Rohloff told Reuters Health by email.
"For all these problems, it is extremely important that we figure out what contributes to the development of stunting, and what to do about it," said Rohloff, of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who was not involved in the study.
These findings do not indicate that aguitas cause the higher rates of stunting in Guatemala, only that the two are somehow linked.
If the watery drink regularly takes the place of breastmilk in feedings, the babies could be undernourished, or if the water is served in dirty containers it might spread infection, but neither of these is likely to fully explain the connection the researchers saw, according to Doak.
It is also possible that aguitas is a result and not a cause - babies born with a condition that leads to stomach pain and stunted growth would likely be given the drink earlier.
In any case, the connection deserves more investigation, Doak said, as Guatemala has the highest rates of stunting in Latin America and the third highest rate in the world.
"Obviously poverty is likely to play an important role, but other countries with similar per capita incomes have lower prevalences of child stunting," said Doak.
She suggests future studies follow mothers and babies from birth so the researchers can be sure when the babies first taste the drink, instead of relying on answers to survey questions.
"Stunting is an important global pediatric health problem, in Guatemala and elsewhere," said Rohloff, who founded a healthcare organization for indigenous people in the country.
If future studies confirm that the herbal drinks are also a factor, the consequences could be felt outside the country where the current study took place.
"Many different cultures have traditions of giving fluids. Aguitas in Guatemala is just one example," said Doak.
SOURCE: bit.ly/Y5FQAC American Journal of Clinical Nutrition January 30, 2013.