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Nutritional status of indigenous children: findings from the First National Survey of Indigenous People’s Health and Nutrition in Brazil

Bernardo L Horta1, Ricardo Ventura Santos23, James R Welch2, Andrey M Cardoso2, Janaína Vieira dos Santos1, Ana Marlúcia Oliveira Assis4, Pedro CI Lira5 and Carlos EA Coimbra Jr2*

Author Affiliations

1 Programa de Pós-Graduação em Epidemiologia, Universidade Federal de Pelotas, Rua Marechal Deodoro 1160, Pelotas, RS, 96020-220, Brazil

2 Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública, Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, Rua Leopoldo Bulhões 1480, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, 21041-210, Brazil

3 Departamento de Antropologia, Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Quinta da Boa Vista s/n, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, 20940-040, Brazil

4 Escola de Nutrição, Universidade Federal da Bahia, Rua Araújo Pinho 32, Salvador, BA, 40110-150, Brazil

5 Departamento de Nutrição, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Avenida Professor Moraes Rego 1235, Recife, PE, 50670-901, Brazil

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International Journal for Equity in Health 2013, 12:23  doi:10.1186/1475-9276-12-23

Published: 3 April 2013



The prevalence of undernutrition, which is closely associated with socioeconomic and sanitation conditions, is often higher among indigenous than non-indigenous children in many countries. In Brazil, in spite of overall reductions in the prevalence of undernutrition in recent decades, the nutritional situation of indigenous children remains worrying. The First National Survey of Indigenous People’s Health and Nutrition in Brazil, conducted in 2008–2009, was the first study to evaluate a nationwide representative sample of indigenous peoples. This paper presents findings from this study on the nutritional status of indigenous children < 5 years of age in Brazil.


A multi-stage sampling was employed to obtain a representative sample of the indigenous population residing in villages in four Brazilian regions (North, Northeast, Central-West, and Southeast/South). Initially, a stratified probabilistic sampling was carried out for indigenous villages located in these regions. Households in sampled villages were selected by census or systematic sampling depending on the village population. The survey evaluated the health and nutritional status of children < 5 years, in addition to interviewing mothers or caretakers.


Height and weight measurements were taken of 6,050 and 6,075 children, respectively. Prevalence rates of stunting, underweight, and wasting were 25.7%, 5.9%, and 1.3%, respectively. Even after controlling for confounding, the prevalence rates of underweight and stunting were higher among children in the North region, in low socioeconomic status households, in households with poorer sanitary conditions, with anemic mothers, with low birthweight, and who were hospitalized during the prior 6 months. A protective effect of breastfeeding for underweight was observed for children under 12 months.


The elevated rate of stunting observed in indigenous children approximates that of non-indigenous Brazilians four decades ago, before major health reforms greatly reduced its occurrence nationwide. Prevalence rates of undernutrition were associated with socioeconomic variables including income, household goods, schooling, and access to sanitation services, among other variables. Providing important baseline data for future comparison, these findings further suggest the relevance of social, economic, and environmental factors at different scales (local, regional, and national) for the nutritional status of indigenous peoples.

Brazil; Indigenous peoples; Health surveys; Nutrition surveys; Health status indicators; Epidemiologic measurements; Child health; Nutritional status