SEATTLE, Washington — You may have noticed that children who are struggling from extreme famine or poverty often have extended bellies, despite their obvious malnourishment. This is extremely rare for children in developed areas such as the U.S., but one government test approximates that 50 percent of older people in U.S. nursing homes suffer from this phenomenon known as kwashiorkor.
Kwashiorkor occurs when there is insufficient protein consumed in the diet. Certain symptoms include: changes in coloration of the skin, diarrhea, inability to gain weight, stunted growth, dermatitis, swelling of feet and hands (also known as edema) and difficulty learning. Some people translate “kwashiorkor” to mean “the red-haired boy” in the Ga language of Ghana, because of the red-haired effect that kwashiorkor has.
It is possible to reverse the stomach swelling from kwashiorkor with proper protein and caloric intake, but unfortunately the effect it has one the body such as stunted growth and the formation of learning disabilities, is often nearly impossible to reverse.
Kwashiorkor is a very specific form of malnutrition that is categorized by the malnutrition of proteins versus the malnutrition of only calories, which is known as marasmus.
When the majority of a child’s diet consists of rice, yams, or cereal, foods high in carbohydrates and extremely low in proteins, it causes a severe imbalance of other necessary nutrients and vitamins that are needed for healthy functioning and growth of a child’s body.
With this lack of nutrients and vitamins comes critical internal damage, often including the failing of muscles, organs and skin. Usually the body begins to shut down: skin becomes pale, scaled and cuts do not easily heal; intestines become thin and whitened, with the cells degenerating and losing lubrication; the liver begins to fail, enlarge and change color. The most crucial and harmful damage kwashiorkor has is on the heart and brain, causing abnormalities and cardiac issues, which often go undetected in autopsies.
In developing countries, kwashiorkor is common, not necessarily just because of poverty, but often times because of a lack of education about how to eat a healthy balance of food. “Infants are most frequently affected in times of famine, when their mother is also starved for protein,… [but kwashiorkor]may occur even when there is no food shortage, because tribal custom or ignorance may not provide the right nutritional balance.” This makes kwashiorkor more of a global health issue not designated to any particular area of the world, but rather an issue capable of affecting any region of the world.
Sources: Medline Plus, PubMed Health, The Imaging of Tropical Disease