International Study Finds Additional Links between Mother’s Poor Health and Young Children’s Death

A recent study published in PLOS Medicine by researchers from Washington, Oxford, and Witwatersand Universities found that in poorer countries, young children risk of dying begins to rise in the months prior to their mother’s death when she is seriously ill. According to the paper, these results add to the existing body of evidence which indicates that a young child’s risk of dying increases in the months following the mother’s death.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data on children aged 0-5 years of age that was collected from a health and socio-demographic surveillance system in the Agincourt sub-district of northeast South Africa from January 1994 to December 31 2008 — about 15 years worth of information. Specifically, they looked at data from children whose mother’s death was reported to have been related to either AIDS or Tuberculosis as well as other unrelated causes. The paper explains that they used a statistical model to “the changes in the child’s chance (odds) of dying from a year before the mother’s death through to any time after her death during the study period.”

They found that 1,244 children — about 3 percent of the total number — had died within the time frame. Their analysis showed that a child’s likelihood of dying starts to rise about 6-11 months prior to the mother’s death and also that there are three distinct periods where there was a much higher chance of death: “the period 1–2 months before the month in which their mother died (odds ratio 7.1); the month of her death (odds ratio 12.6); and the period 1–2 months following her death (odds ratio 7.0).”

They also found that “during the five-month period around the time of their mother’s death, children aged 0–6 months were about nine times more likely to die than children aged 24–59 months” and “about 1.5 times more likely to die if their mother died of an AIDS/tuberculosis-related cause.”

These findings, the researchers conclude, highlight the urgent need for proactive and coordinated community-based interventions to support families and vulnerable children.


Clark SJ, Kahn K, Houle B, Arteche A, Collinson MA, et al. (2013) Young Children’s Probability of Dying Before and After Their Mother’s Death: A Rural South African Population-Based Surveillance Study. PLoS Med 10(3): e1001409. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001409

Uduak Thomas, M.A., is a journalist and science writer specializing in medical research and healthcare. She is Social Media Editor for Cancer InCytes Magazine.

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