Background: Our earlier uncontrolled observations during primary famine and subsequent refeeding did not suggest that severe undernutrition inevitably increases vulnerability to infection. Some infections appeared suppressed by famine but reactivated by refeeding.
Aims: To examine prospectively the occurrence of infections in a large cohort of primary famine victims before and during refeeding.
Methods: From 1973 to 1993, 4382 famine victims aged 14 or more with an estimated weight loss greater than 25% were weighed and examined for infection before and after one, two, three and four weeks of refeeding. In 137, serum C-reactive protein was measured in an effort to detect latent asymptomatic infections before and after two weeks of refeeding. Refeeding diets included wheat, sorghum, millet, ghee and milk powder.
Results: Mean weight loss +/- SD was 28.7 +/- 2.3%. Before refeeding overt infections were found in 4.9%, an incidence rising to 29.1% at two weeks of refeeding and declining after four. Those developing infections gained more weight at two weeks, 4.6 3 +/- 0.81 kg, than those never infected, 3.94 +/- 0.76 (p = < 0.001 t test). C-reactive protein levels confirmed the presence of latent infections before refeeding.
Conclusions: Severe undernutrition can suppress certain infections, mostly those due to intracellular pathogens and especially P. falciparum. Refeeding reactivates suppressed infection and can increase vulnerability to certain new infections especially of viral origin. Those gaining weight the most rapidly may be at greatest risk. Refeeding with foods alien to local culture could play a role in reactivating latent infections. Our findings may be limited to severe undernutrition and not apply to lesser forms or secondary undernutrition in hospital patients. These studies were done during charitable provision of medical care to famine victims.