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J Glob Health. 2011 Jun;1(1):46-58.

Systematic review of birth cohort studies in Africa.

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Centre for Population Health Sciences and Global Health Academy, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.



In sub-Saharan Africa, unacceptably high rates of mortality amongst women and children continue to persist. The emergence of research employing new genomic technologies is advancing knowledge on cause of disease. This review aims to identify birth cohort studies conducted in sub-Saharan Africa and to consider their suitability as a platform to support genetic epidemiological studies.


A systematic literature review was conducted to identify birth cohort studies in sub-Saharan Africa across the following databases: MEDLINE, EMBASE, AFRO and OpenSIGLE. A total of 8110 papers were retrieved. Application of inclusion/exclusion criteria retained only 189 papers, of which 71 met minimum quality criteria and were retained for full text analysis.


The search revealed 28 birth cohorts: 14 of which collected biological data, 10 collected blood samples and only one study collected DNA for storage. These studies face many methodological challenges: notably, high rates of attrition and lack of funding for several rounds of study follow up. Population-based 'biobanks' have emerged as a major approach to harness genomic technologies in health research and yet the sub-Saharan African region still awaits large scale birth cohort biobanks collecting DNA and associated health and lifestyle data.


Investment in this field, together with related endeavours to foster and develop research capacity for these studies, may lead to an improved understanding of the determinants of intrauterine growth and development, birth outcomes such as prematurity and low birth weight, the links between maternal and infant health, survival of infectious diseases in the first years of life, and response to vaccines and antibiotic treatment.


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