Soil-transmitted helminth infection in pregnancy and long-term child neurocognitive and behavioral development: A prospective mother-child cohort in Benin


Background: An estimated 30% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa suffer from soil-transmitted helminth infection during pregnancy (SHIP), which has been shown to increase risk of pre-term birth, low birth weight, and maternal anemia. A previous study in Benin found that SHIP was associated with impaired cognitive and gross motor development scores in 635 one-year-old children. The objective of the present study was to follow children prospectively to investigate whether the association between SHIP and child neurocognitive and behavioral development persisted at age six.

Principal findings: Our prospective child cohort included 487 live-born singletons of pregnant women enrolled in the Malaria in Pregnancy Preventive Alternative Drugs clinical trial in Allada, Benin. SHIP was assessed at three antenatal visits (ANVs) through collection and testing of stool samples. Neurocognitive and behavioral development was assessed in six-year-old children by trained investigators using the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children 2nd edition and the parent-reported Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). Multiple linear regression models generated coefficients and 95% confidence intervals and potential mediating factors were tested. Prevalence of SHIP was 13% at the 1st ANV, 9% at the 2nd ANV, and 1% at delivery. SHIP was not associated with low neurocognitive scores in children at six years. Higher SDQ internalizing scores, indicating increased emotional impairments in children, were associated with helminth infection at the 2nd ANV/delivery 1.07 (95% CI 0.15, 2.00) and at least once during pregnancy 0.79 (95% CI 0.12, 1.46) in adjusted models. Mediation analysis did not reveal significant indirect effects of several mediators on this association.

Conclusions: Our study shows that while SHIP is not associated with impaired long-term neurocognitive development, infections may have significant negative impacts on emotional development in six-year-old children. SHIP remains a critical public health issue, and adequate prevention and treatment protocols should be enforced in low- and middle-income countries.