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Kwashiorkor 101: Severe malnutrition common in developing countries 

Published on Mon 31 Jul 2023 at 09:29

Distinguished by a profound lack of protein, this condition leads to fluid retention and an enlarged, distended abdomen. It is characterised by a fatty liver. 

By Tej Kumar

Kwashiorkor, a form of edematous malnutrition, is trending on the internet. Here’s a quick look at what the disease entails and some common myths associated with the condition.

“Kwashiorkor represents a form of malnutrition distinguished by a profound lack of protein. This condition leads to fluid retention and results in an enlarged, distended abdomen,” informs Dr Maulik Patel, a First Check member and consultant physician from Gujarat, India. 

While the condition can affect people of all ages, it’s most common among children, especially those in the age group of 3-5 years. “An age when many children have recently transitioned from breastfeeding to a less adequate diet — one higher in carbohydrates but lower in protein and other nutrients,” explains Dr Maulik.

Kwashiorkor is characterised by a fatty liver, and this fatty liver of the undernutrition phenotype is often accompanied by evidence of inflammation and fibrosis. “Nutrient deficiencies, such as carnitine and essential fatty acids, may also be important contributing factors in the development of fatty liver in states of malnutrition,” says the physician.

Evidence suggests that edematous malnutrition is not only caused by dietary protein deficiency, but also by the changes in the intestinal microbiome, influenced by diet. Severe malnutrition disrupts the normal development of the microbiome, leading to an immature bacterial population and potential health consequences. 

Kwashiorkor is more common in developing countries in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. Timely diagnosis and treatment are the key to tackling this persistent challenge of malnutrition.