Kwashiorkor is a disease that appears to be caused through severe malnutrition, and it primarily impacts children. It is most common in developing nations, where famine conditions are more likely. Many people in developed countries are familiar with the disease — although they probably don't know the specific name — because sufferers are often featured in reports and news stories about malnutrition in developing countries.
The disease was first identified and described in the 1930s in Ghana. The word kwashiorkor comes from the Ga language, which is widely spoken in many parts of that country. It literally means “one who is physically displaced,” a reference to the fact that the disease emerges in children who have just been weaned off of breast milk. When the disease is not immediately addressed, it can cause severe disabilities, and if left untreated, it can lead to death.
Protein deficiency is an important aspect of this condition, although it does not appear to be the only cause. While children are breastfeeding, they get a number of vital nutrients and amino acids through their mothers' milk. As long as a mother is eating reasonably well, her child should stay healthy. Once a child is weaned, however, a new source of these vital nutrients needs to be obtained. Unfortunately, many people in developing nations eat starch heavy diets, without the protein sources and fresh fruits and vegetables that they need.
One of the most characteristic symptoms of kwashiorkor is a distended belly. Victims of the disease also suffer from lethargy, slow growth, anemia, edema, hair loss, and changes in hair and skin color. Many of these symptoms are common to a wide range of malnutrition conditions, and they are often very familiar to aid workers in developing countries. The malnutrition disease can also develop in first world countries, however, especially among poor and underprivileged groups, along with the elderly.
Like other health problems caused through malnutrition, kwashiorkor can be avoided and treated through proper diet. In addition to eating a healthy, balanced diet, it is also important for people to eat food that has been stored properly. Some research has suggested that this disease may be related to moldy or rotting food, in addition to being caused by malnutrition. Many aid organizations offer nutritional education and grants of food or farming assistance to help prevent the condition.