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Int J Epidemiol. 2014 Feb;43(1):216-23. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyt232. Epub 2013 Dec 23.

Thymus development and infant and child mortality in rural Bangladesh.

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MRC International Nutrition Group, Department of Population Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, London, UK, Department of Clinical Trials and Clinical Epidemiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba, Japan, International Maternal and Child Health, Department of Women's and Children's Health, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden and International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B), Dhaka, Bangladesh.



Data from West Africa indicate that a small thymus at birth and at 6 months of age is a strong and independent risk factor for infection-related mortality up to 24 and 36 months of age, respectively. We investigated the association between thymus size (thymic index, TI) in infancy and subsequent infant and child survival in a contemporary South Asian population.


The study focused on the follow-up of a randomized trial of prenatal nutritional interventions in rural Bangladesh (ISRCTN16581394), with TI measured longitudinally in infancy (at birth and weeks 8, 24 and 52 of age) and accurate recording of mortality up to 5 years of age.


A total of 3267 infants were born into the Maternal and Infant Nutrition Interventions, Matlab study; data on TI were available for 1168 infants at birth, increasing to 2094 infants by 52 weeks of age. TI in relation to body size was largest at birth, decreasing through infancy. For infants with at least one measure of TI available, there were a total of 99 deaths up to the age of 5 years. No association was observed between TI and subsequent mortality when TI was measured at birth. However, an association with mortality was observed with TI at 8 weeks of age [odds ratio (OR) for change in mortality risk associated with 1 standard deviation change in TI: all deaths: OR = 0.64, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.41, 0.98; P = 0.038; and infection-related deaths only: OR = 0.32, 95% CI 0.14, 0.74; P = 0.008]. For TI when measured at 24 and 52 weeks of age, the numbers of infection-related deaths were too few (3 and 1, respectively) for any meaningful association to be observed.


These results confirm that thymus size in early infancy predicts subsequent survival in a lower mortality setting than West Africa. The absence of an effect at birth and its appearance at 8 weeks of age suggests early postnatal influences such as breast milk trophic factors.


Immune function; nutrition; pregnancy; thymus

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