What is Acute Malnutrition?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2019
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Acute malnutrition is a serious health problem that can lead to permanent metabolism issues, kidney and immune system breakdown, and even death by starvation. Acute malnutrition is a leading illness in some parts of the world, brought on by a lack of food or a sudden illness that prevents food intake. Treating and preventing acute malnutrition is a major cause undertaken by governments and charitable organizations, as a high percentage of people that show signs of the condition are infants and children.

Malnutrition is different from many other diseases, since the cause is not an inherent bodily breakdown but often a result of poverty and a lack of food supplies. The body requires food as a car requires fuel; without vitamins, minerals, proteins, and amino acids, the organs of the body cannot perform normally. When a sudden lack of food creates acute malnutrition, organ function slows and susceptibility to infection dramatically rises.

Diagnosing malnutrition is somewhat difficult, as there is no absolute rule between a person who is underfed and one who suffers from acute malnutrition. One diagnostic test is a comparison of weight to height; anyone under a certain weight to height ratio may be considered malnourished. In young children, diagnosis is often done through measuring the mid-upper arm circumference, known as the MUAC measurement.


A third sign of acute malnutrition is the appearance of edema, or areas of water retention, throughout the body. Checking for edema is done by applying gentle pressure to a swollen area, such as the feet, and seeing if an imprint temporarily remains on the pressure site. Edema is a sign of severe acute malnutrition, and require immediate treatment for any hope of recovery.

Treatment of acute malnutrition may not be as simple as restoring nutritious food to the diet. In malnutrition cases caused by chronic diarrhea or gastrointestinal problems, the underlying illness must be corrected if there is to be any improvement. Additionally, those who have been without food for an extended time period may be unable to stomach regular food, requiring IV nutrition until some level of health is restored.

As the condition is often caused by a shortage of food, a permanent cure consists of dramatically improving infrastructure in stricken areas. While charitable groups can save some people from the eventual death due to starvation, the curing of the cause is an enormous problem that involves the regional economy, roads, availability of doctors, food supplies and distribution, and even social structures. Curing acute malnutrition in one person is often possible, but curing an impoverished region of the illness is a tremendous problem that has yet to be solved in many areas of the world.


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