Acute malnutrition is the more immediate killer: it afflicts an estimated 55 million children worldwide—19 million of whom suffer its deadliest, severest form—and results in some 3.5 million child deaths each year. This loss of life is all the more tragic because acute malnutrition is predictable, preventable, and treatable.
Routine nourishment allows humans to secure the energy their bodies need to support vital organ functions, cell development, and tissue maintenance. Acute malnutrition occurs when the body doesn’t receive this nourishment and exhausts its energy reserves: the body begins to consume its own tissues in search of the nutrients and energy it needs to survive, targeting muscle and body fat first. The body’s metabolism begins to slow, thermal regulation is disrupted, kidney function is impaired, and the immune system’s capacity is diminished. The greater the loss of muscle and other tissue, the less likely the chances of survival.
Moderate Acute Malnutrition
Moderate acute malnutrition affects some 36 million children worldwide, greatly increasing morbidity rates—an individual’s risk of death—by introducing serious deficiencies that compromise a person’s immune system, leaving them more susceptible to illness and disease. These deficiencies include anemia (from a lack of iron), goiter (from a lack of iodine), and xerophthalmia (from a lack of vitamin A), as well as scurvy, pellagra, beriberi (from a lack of vitamin B), and rickets (from a lack of vitamin D).
Severe Acute Malnutrition
Acute malnutrition’s most extreme form—a deadly condition if left untreated—severe acute malnutrition afflicts an estimated 19 million children worldwide. This condition takes one of two forms, although it’s not clearly understood why an individual develops one versus the other:
Characterized by a significant loss of weight and muscle tissue, children suffering from marasmus look almost elderly, their skeletal bodies losing any equilibrium between weight and height. Their bodies’ vital processes have become severely compromised: metabolism has slowed, thermal regulation is disrupted, intestinal absorption and kidney function are diminished, the liver’s capacity to synthesize proteins and eliminate toxins is reduced, and the immunological system doesn’t function properly, meaning less resistance to illness and disease. Even if a child manages to survive its bout with marasmus, the damage is done and the deficiencies sustained can never be overcome.
Kwashiorkor, a Ghanaian word meaning “the sickness the older child gets when a new child is born,” is characterized by bilateral edemas (swollen tissue) on a child’s arms, legs and face—and these children often appear full-faced despite being so malnourished. Beneath these edemas, the muscles have been severely weakened, causing excruciating cramping and muscle pain, and as is the case with marasmus, children with kwashiorkor suffer from significant damage to the functioning of their internal systems.
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A Diminished Weight/Height Index
- A weight/height measurement below 20% of the mean indicates moderate acute malnutrition.
- A weight/height measurement below 30% of the mean indicates severe acute malnutrition.
Presence of Bilateral Edemas
An abnormal accumulation of liquid in one's extremities.
Middle Upper Arm Circumference
An anthropometric measure frequently used during emergencies is the measurement of a child's upper arm—the MUAC, or Middle Upper Arm Circumference. Anything less than 12.0 cm indicates a child's life is in danger from acute malnutrition.