How malnutrition kills
28 September 2000
The commonest form of malnutrition, called marasmus, results in an affected child being severely wasted, with no fat and very little muscle tissue left on his or her body. The internal organs, including the heart and the blood, are also weakened. The child is left with no reserves to fight infection, and any illness that comes along is likely to be fatal. The commonest causes of death during a famine are in fact infectious diseases, rather than starvation per se. Chief among these are pneumonia, diarrhoea, and measles. The other form of malnutrition, called kwashiorkor, in which the child's body is swollen, likewise kills by lowering resistance to infection. However, kwashiorkor can also be fatal in its own right, because of the disturbed levels of salts and minerals (electrolyte imbalances) that accompany it. In a therapeutic feeding centre, where only severely malnourished children are cared for, many deaths tend to occur at night. This is because these children are especially prone to low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) and low body temperature (hypothermia).