Severe malnutrition in children: high case-fatality rates can be reduced

Afr Health. 1997 Sep;19(6):17-8.


PIP: This article offers a protocol for reducing high case fatality rates from malnutrition. Most child deaths from malnutrition occur in the first few days of treatment. Treatment should involve stabilization followed by rehabilitation. The article describes the treatment procedures for hypoglycemia, hypothermia, dehydration, and missed infections and discusses feeding during the stabilization and rehabilitation phases of treatment. All severely malnourished children have excess body sodium but high intracellular and low plasma levels. Malnourished children have deficiencies of potassium and magnesium that may take 2 weeks to correct. Edema is partly due to deficiencies in potassium and magnesium. A high sodium intake can be corrected by rehydrating with a modified oral rehydration solution and the special starter formula. Family food should be prepared without salt. Magnesium and potassium should be added directly to foods. All severely malnourished children have vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Deficiencies may include vitamin A, zinc, copper, selenium, and folic acid. Multivitamin supplements can correct for micronutrient deficiencies. It is advised that zinc should not be ignored, since it is responsible for repair of intestinal mucosa, halting diarrhea, healing of ulcerated skin lesions, restoration of appetite, improved immune function, and lean tissue synthesis. Iron should not be given until growth starts, infections are controlled, and antioxidant status is improved (usually 1 week after admission). Early introduction of iron poses a risk of enhancing pathogen increases and stimulating production of toxic free radicals. Relapses can be reduced by training parents how to feed their child frequently with energy and nutrient dense foods. The regimen was tested in a South African project and found to reduce mortality from 30% to 20%. After greater hospital attention to treatment of sepsis and hypoglycemia, case fatality declined to 6%.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Age Factors
  • Biology
  • Body Temperature*
  • Carbohydrates
  • Child*
  • Demography
  • Developing Countries*
  • Diet*
  • Disease
  • Fluid Therapy*
  • Glucose*
  • Health
  • Health Planning Guidelines*
  • Infections*
  • Metabolism
  • Mortality*
  • Nutrition Disorders*
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Physiology
  • Population
  • Population Characteristics
  • Population Dynamics
  • Therapeutics*


  • Carbohydrates
  • Glucose