Optimal screening of children with acute malnutrition requires a change in current WHO guidelines as MUAC and WHZ identify different patient groups

PLoS One. 2014 Jul 1;9(7):e101159. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0101159. eCollection 2014.


Background: Timely treatment of acute malnutrition in children <5 years of age could prevent >500,000 deaths annually. Screening at community level is essential to identify children with malnutrition. Current WHO guidelines for community screening for malnutrition recommend a Mid Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) of <115 mm to identify severe acute malnutrition (SAM). However, it is currently unclear how MUAC relates to the other indicator used to define acute malnutrition: weight-for-height Z-score (WHZ).

Methods: Secondary data from >11,000 Cambodian children, obtained by different surveys between 2010 and 2012, was used to calculate sensitivity and ROC curves for MUAC and WHZ.

Findings: The secondary analysis showed that using the current WHO cut-off of 115 mm for screening for severe acute malnutrition over 90% of children with a weight-for-height z-score (WHZ) <-3 would have been missed. Reversely, WHZ<-3 missed 80% of the children with a MUAC<115 mm.

Conclusions: The current WHO cut-off for screening for SAM should be changed upwards from the current 115 mm. In the Cambodian data-set, a cut-off of 133 mm would allow inclusion of >65% of children with a WHZ<-3. Importantly, MUAC and WHZ identified different sub-groups of children with acute malnutrition, therefore these 2 indicators should be regarded as independent from each other. We suggest a 2-step model with MUAC used a screening at community level, followed by MUAC and WHZ measured at a primary health care unit, with both indicators used independently to diagnose severe acute malnutrition. Current guidelines should be changed to reflect this, with treatment initiated when either MUAC <115 mm or WHZ<-3.

Publication types

  • Practice Guideline

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Malnutrition / diagnosis*
  • Nutrition Assessment*
  • ROC Curve
  • World Health Organization

Grants and funding

These authors have no support or funding to report.