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Researchers suggest a global alternative for accurate child body measurements

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Melva Robertson

A low-cost, portable, 3D scanner may reliably determine body measurements of young children within one millimeter of gold-standard manual measurements, according to recent research. The study of anthropometry (measurements of young children) was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by researchers at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Body Surface Translations (BST). It is published online in the journal PLOS ONE.

Led by Reynaldo Martorell, PhD, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of International Nutrition at the Rollins School of Public Health, the team evaluated 474 children ages 0-5 living in Atlanta. Anthropometric measurements were obtained both manually and through 3D imaging scans, to compare the reliability of both measurement options. Additionally, researchers assessed the convenience and accessibility of the light-weight, hand-held alternative for scanning.

Anthropometry is used to estimate the prevalence of malnutrition in populations, and the information is used to design and evaluate preventive programs for needy populations. Anthropometry is also useful clinically to diagnose and treat malnutrition and to monitor nutritional status. It is generally based on body measurements such as length, height, and head and arm circumference in children under five years of age.  A major problem is that the measurements taken in clinics and household surveys are often inaccurate, which can lead to wrong decisions.

“The standard, manual process for measuring children requires considerable training in order to obtain reliable estimates of child malnutrition,” explains Martorell. “Due to inadequate training and heavy equipment that is difficult to transfer from house to house, measurements are error prone and can result in misclassifications. Our research suggests that the light-weight, handheld imaging technology has the potential to replace traditional methods and improve the quality of nutritional indicators around the world.”

Researchers noted that although software modifications are needed to improve the accuracy of the 3D imaging system tested in the study, there is great promise in the benefits of the device.

“The evidence is not complete, but this study was an important step,” says Joel Conkle, PhD, MPH, UNICEF Uganda Senior Nutrition Research Consultant and co-author of the study. “We showed that affordable 3D scanners can reliably measure young children. There is still work to do to improve scanning software and to prove that the technology works in different environments — and that work is underway. Globally, there are multiple initiatives to bring 3D imaging systems to both health facilities and routine surveys within the next few years If successful, these initiatives will improve measurement quality, and could ultimately lead to enhancing our ability to improve child nutrition around the world.”   

“We are grateful for the meticulous work done by the Emory team in evaluating our AutoAnthro system,” says Gene Alexander, PhD, chief technical officer of BST. “They demonstrated the capabilities and limitations of the current system and really helped us focus our future efforts toward reliably detecting malnutrition in childhood.”

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