Background: Timor-Leste has a high prevalence of soil-transmitted helminth (STH) infections. High proportions of the population have been reported as being anaemic, and extremely high proportions of children as stunted or wasted. There have been no published analyses of the contributions of STH to these morbidity outcomes in Timor-Leste.
Methods: Using baseline cross-sectional data from 24 communities (18 communities enrolled in a cluster randomised controlled trial, and identically-collected data from six additional communities), analyses of the association between STH infections and community haemoglobin and child development indices were undertaken. Stool samples were assessed for STH using qPCR and participant haemoglobin, heights and weights were measured. Questionnaires were administered to collect demographic and socioeconomic data. Intensity of infection was categorised using correlational analysis between qPCR quantification cycle values and eggs per gram of faeces equivalents, with algorithms generated from seeding experiments. Mixed-effects logistic and multinomial regression were used to assess the association between STH infection intensity classes and anaemia, and child stunting, wasting and underweight.
Results: Very high stunting (60%), underweight (60%), and wasting (20%) in children, but low anaemia prevalence (15%), were found in the study communities. STH were not significantly associated with morbidity outcomes. Male children and those in the poorest socioeconomic quintile were significantly more likely to be moderately and severely stunted. Male children were significantly more likely than female children to be severely underweight. Increasing age was also a risk factor for being underweight. Few risk factors emerged for wasting in these analyses.
Conclusions: According to World Health Organization international reference standards, levels of child morbidity in this population constitute a public health emergency, although the international reference standards need to be critically evaluated for their applicability in Timor-Leste. Strategies to improve child development and morbidity outcomes, for example via nutrition and iron supplementation programmes, are recommended for these communities. Despite the apparent lack of an association from STH in driving anaemia, stunting, wasting and underweight, high endemicity suggests a need for STH control strategies.