What is Marasmus?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Marasmus is a type of malnutrition which most commonly occurs in infants under one year of age in the developing world. It is caused by an inadequate intake of nutrients, especially protein, or an inability to properly digest nutrients. This condition can be very serious, as if it is allowed to persist, it will pass a point of no return, making it impossible to treat the patient because his or her body is incapable of absorbing nutrition due to physical damage caused by malnutrition.

The transition from breastfeeding to feeding infants with formula is a common cause of marasmus.
The transition from breastfeeding to feeding infants with formula is a common cause of marasmus.

This type of malnutrition is among a group of conditions known collectively as protein-energy malnutrition or PEM. These conditions include cachexia and kwashiorkor. Together, PEM conditions account for around 50% of the deaths of children under five in the developing world. One of the most obvious symptoms of marasmus is wasting of the body, resulting in prominent bones and a decrease in the amount of body fat. Patients are usually tired, because their bodies try to conserve energy, and irritability and extreme hunger are common.

Children who live in poor, rural areas and developing countries are at an increased risk for marasmus and a number of related conditions due to the lack of complete protein sources in their diets.
Children who live in poor, rural areas and developing countries are at an increased risk for marasmus and a number of related conditions due to the lack of complete protein sources in their diets.

As the condition progresses, skin folds may develop, along with dry skin, hair loss, and edema or swelling. People with marasmus also typically suffer from dehydration, which can cause a variety of health problems. Treatment involves the reintroduction of balanced nutrition and fluids, along with treatment for underlying infections and other conditions which could complicate the condition. Chronic marasmus can result in long term health problems for the patient which can include heart conditions and an irregular metabolism.

One of the most common causes for maramus is the transition from breastfeeding to feeding infants with formula and other foods. Women may stop breastfeeding for a variety of reasons, ranging from social pressure to an inability to produce milk, and they often have trouble getting balanced nutrition for their children. Acute and chronic infections can also cause the condition, especially in the case of children who are already vulnerable due to borderline malnutrition.

Many aid organizations work to address marasmus in the developing world by creating and maintaining a steady food supply, and identifying cases early so that they can receive treatment. Education of parents, especially mothers, has also been used to try to prevent marasmus. However, poverty, social instability, and political turmoil can be difficult problems for mothers to address, making it impossible for them to provide the care their children need even when they are aware of the consequences of malnutrition.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

@simrin-- It's true, unfortunately. I visited a very poor village in Burundi, Africa for a week last year. I saw many children with marasmus when I was there. They are extremely skinny, with their bones and ribs showing and usually have a bloated stomach as you said. Their bodies are too thin when compared to their heads, and bulging eyes.

We used to hand out these special candy bars to the kids. These candy bars were made especially for children suffering from malnourishment. It has thousands of calories and lots of carbs, proteins and vitamins.

When I was there, they told us the statistics with death rates and they said that one out of two children that we see will die from lack of marasmus treatment. Aid agencies and volunteers help, but there just isn't enough food or medicine for everyone. And aid agencies don't even have access to many areas because of fighting and security risks.

On TV when they show poverty stricken people from the developing world, they usually show children and babies with extremely swollen stomachs. I've always found this odd since these children look very skinny with thin arms and legs, but have a disproportionately large belly. I assumed that it was due to malnutrition but never knew that the proper name for this condition is marasmus.

I wish people in the developing world could overcome poverty and have access to enough food so that no child has to be sick like that again. I know it's easier said than done. Every year we hear about so much aid being sent to these countries, but there is still poverty, illness and death.

As long as permanent solutions aren't found for poverty, most marasmus causes cannot be eliminated in my opinion. These people need to be able to feed themselves and not worry if they will have food for their children the next day.


@anon54331-- Children and adults need to eat nutritious food and a complete diet with proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.

So for proteins you can eat meat or animal products like beef, fish, chicken and eggs. Milk products like milk, yogurt and cheese. Nuts like walnuts, almonds and peanuts also have protein.

Carbohydrates are foods like bread, rice and pasta. Vitamins and minerals are rich in all vegetables and fruits.

Infants under 6 months old however need breast milk or specially formulated formulas to get all the nutrition they need. This will prevent nutritional marasmus.


What foods do you eat to prevent marasmus?


Can you tell me where was marasmus first found?


Can you tell me more about the diet that causes marasmus pls?

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