Anaemia in Ladakh

We often hear the word ‘highest’ being used in relation to Ladakh. The world’s highest motorable road, the highest dosa point in the world, and the highest ATM in the world are a few examples. Recently, Ladakh featured in the national news for having the ‘highest’ prevalence of anaemia in children in India at a whopping 92.5%. Well, many might have recorded it as a fact, but this got me thinking. Who collected the data? Who compiled it? And, who interpreted the data? Was it interpreted correctly? Was this another case of armchair research?

According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data, over 50% of the Indian population is anaemic. As in other parts of India, anaemia is a public health issue in Ladakh too. However, when is said to be prevalent in 92 % of children, the data needs to be scrutinised more closely. The reasons cited in the news article I read for this prevalence were plausible. It argued that Ladakhi children do not have access to green leafy vegetables and fruits for a major part of the year. It also mentioned that crops are grown in the summer and that in the winter people do not have a regular supply of fresh produce.

On the contrary, I think that most Ladakhi children at present enjoy a good meal even if they do not always have access to different varieties of fruits and vegetables as enjoyed by other Indian children. Anaemia was also cited as a reason for Ladakhi children being stunted. Well, this has to be interpreted in the context of genetics, which play an important role in the height of a person. Most high landers are shorter than the average human. This is said to be a part of their adaptation to life in a high altitude area. In fact, I rarely see a severely malnourished child in my practice. Maybe we are not doing justice to this issue as we are using the standard chart developed by Indian Academy of Paediatrics, which adapted the WHO chart for the Indian population. I don’t think any studies were done on Ladakhi children to prepare this chart.

Anaemia at high altitude has always been overestimated. Haemoglobin level at high altitude rises in response to hypoxia. The body increases the carrier of oxygen i.e., haemoglobin to compensate for the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. When we have more haemoglobin, we will have more oxygen molecules supply to each tissue. So, when we calculate haemoglobin at high altitude a correction has to be made to compensate for the increase in haemoglobin in response to lack of oxygen. Simply put, if your haemoglobin level is nine it will be recorded as seven. Similarly, in cases your haemoglobin level is 13, which is not anaemic, it is recorded as 11, which is regarded as anaemic. This is because the extra haemoglobin value is due to high altitude, and has to be subtracted to calculate the actual haemoglobin value. As a result, many children are being recorded as anaemic. The correction is based on research carried out by the American health agency Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) based on studies done among high altitude communities living in the Andes. This may or may not apply to the people of Ladakh.

The correlation is complex. The adaption at high altitude communities in the Andes is said to be different from that of the communities living on the Tibetan plateau. It is said that the Andean communities have not developed the physiological adaptations to high altitude conditions as evident among the residents of the Tibetan plateau. Furthermore, it is not clear to me if the anaemia study only focussed on haemoglobin value or if a more detailed investigation was carried out. We need to know if a person is truly anaemic before we label them as anaemic. This requires more tests in addition to their haemoglobin level. I doubt that such tests were done. In fact, I am not aware of any large study on anaemia in the last 20 years in which important parameters such as iron levels were done without which we cannot reach any conclusion about anaemia prevalence.
I am aware of one study involving 840 students in Leh district that was done by a Netherland-based NGO called School Health Checks. After recording data over two years, the interpretation of the data was interesting not only because of its results but also because of the actual observation. This study assessed haemoglobin through spectrography (Hemocue) using blood drawn from a finger prick. When someone had very severe anaemia say a haemoglobin level less than 5.5 gm per decilitre), they carried out more advanced tests such as a smear examination at Sonam Norboo Memorial Hospital in Leh. Other advanced tests such as iron studies, B12 and folate levels were not done.

After recording the data, they interpreted it using the CDC correction based on chronic exposure to high altitude. They concluded that the prevalence of anaemia among school students in Leh as 82%. They were astonished by the result as they had physically examined all the children. The pattern of distribution of anaemia among different age groups did not correlate with other known population groups. The investigation team included a qualified physician, a paediatrician, a biologist, and an epidemiologist. Based on the conclusion that emerged, they were sure that something was wrong with the result, the methodology or that the criteria they were using was too strict. So they applied a mild correction recording the altitude of Leh as 2,000m above mean sea level (amsl) and that of Turtuk as 1,500m amsl. They then applied the CDC criteria once again and the anaemia prevalence was 66%, which is still higher than the national average. Another interesting observation they made was that Ladakhi children eat a large amount of sweets, chips and packaged noodles, which may have contributed to the anaemia. They also observed that often parents are the ones who provide children with these products for consumption. It is interesting to note that during the COVID-19 pandemic when children were at home, the intake of such food has increased manifold and probably so has the prevalence of anaemia.

In this regard, a more detailed study with a larger sample size is required. It is said that we are drowning in data but starved of knowledge. This is especially true in this case of anaemia in Ladakh. If data is misinterpreted, it will make no sense or can be senseless or even disastrous. The base of the data analysis pyramid has a pool of data. The layers above include information and knowledge. The tip of the pyramid is wisdom. This implies that right analysis and use of data can lead to wisdom. Our understanding of anaemia in Ladakh has a long way to climb, on this pyramid.

By Dr Spalchen Gonbo

Dr Spalchen Gonbo is a Paediatrician based in Leh

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