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Bull World Health Organ. 1996;74(2):223-9.

Why have mortality rates for severe malnutrition remained so high?

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Centre for Human Nutrition, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, England.


A review of the literature that has appeared over the past five decades indicates that the median case fatality from severe malnutrition has remained unchanged over this period and is typically 20-30%, with the highest levels (50-60%) being among those with oedematous malnutrition. A likely cause of this continuing high mortality is faulty case-management. A survey of treatment centres worldwide (n = 79) showed that for acutely ill children, inappropriate diets that are high in protein, energy and sodium and low in micronutrients are commonplace. Practices that could have fatal consequences, such as prescribing diuretics for oedema, were found to be widespread. Evidence of outmoded and conflicting teaching manuals also emerged. Since low mortality levels from malnutrition can be achieved using appropriate treatment regimens, updated treatment guidelines, which are practical and prescriptive rather than descriptive, need to be implemented as part of a comprehensive training programme.

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