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Kwashiorkor 6180.jpg|
ICD-10 E40, E42
ICD-9 260
DiseasesDB 7211
MedlinePlus {{{MedlinePlus}}}
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MeSH D007732

Kwashiorkor is a type of malnutrition with controversial causes, but it is commonly believed to be caused by insufficient protein intake. It usually affects children aged 1–4 years, although it also occurs in older children and adults. Jamaican paediatrician Cicely D. Williams introduced the name into international scientific circles in her 1935 Lancet article[1][2]. When a child is nursing, it receives certain amino acids vital to growth from its mother's milk. When the child is weaned, if the diet that replaces the milk is high in starches and carbohydrates, and deficient in protein (as is common in parts of the world where the bulk of the diet consists of starchy vegetables, or where famine has struck), the child may develop kwashiorkor.


The name is derived from one of the languages of coastal Ghana, translated literally "first-second", and means "rejected one" reflecting the development of the condition in the older child who has been weaned from the breast.


Symptoms of kwashiorkor include a swollen abdomen known as a pot belly, as well as alternating bands of pale and dark hair (flag sign) and weight loss. Common skin symptoms include dermatitis and depigmented skin.

File:Kwashiorkor 6903.jpg

Many of the children in this photograph from a Nigerian orphanage in the late 1960's show symptoms of malnutrition, with four in particular illustrating the gray-blond hair symptomatic of kwashiorkor.

The swollen abdomen is generally attributed to two causes: First, the appearance of ascites due to increased capillary permeability from the increased production of cysteinyl leukotrienes (LTC4 and LTE4) as a result of generalized intracellular deficiency of glutathione. It is also thought to be attributed to the effect of malnutrition on reducing plasma proteins (discussed below), resulting in a reduced oncotic pressure and therefore increased osmotic flux through the capillary wall. A second cause may be due to a grossly enlarged liver due to fatty liver. This fatty change occurs because of the lack of apolipoproteins which transport lipids from the liver to tissues throughout the body.

Victims of kwashiorkor fail to produce antibodies following vaccination against diseases, including diphtheria and typhoid.[1] Generally, the disease can be treated by adding food energy and protein to the diet; however, it can have a long-term impact on a child's physical and mental development, and in severe cases may lead to death.

Possible causes

There are various explanations for the development of kwashiorkor, and the topic remains controversial[3]. It is now accepted that protein deficiency, in combination with energy and micronutrient deficiency, is certainly important, but may not be the key factor. The condition is likely to be due to deficiency of one of several type one nutrients (e.g., iron, folic acid, iodine, selenium, vitamin C), particularly those involved with anti-oxidant protection. Important anti-oxidants in the body that are reduced in children with kwashiorkor include glutathione, albumin, vitamin E and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Therefore, if a child with reduced type one nutrients or anti-oxidants is exposed to stress (e.g. an infection or toxin) he/she is more liable to develop kwashiorkor.

Ignorance of nutrition can be a cause. Dr. Latham, director of the Program in International Nutrition at Cornell University cited a case where parents who fed their child cassava failed to recognize malnutrition because of the edema caused by the syndrome and insisted the child was well-nourished despite the lack of dietary protein.

One important factor in the development of kwashiorkor is aflatoxin poisoning. Aflatoxins are produced by molds and ingested with moldy foods. They are toxified by the cytochrome P450 system in the liver, the resulting epoxides damage liver DNA. Since many serum proteins, in particular albumin, are produced in the liver, the symptoms of kwashiorkor are easily explained. It is noteworthy that kwashiorkor occurs mostly in warm humid climates that encourage mold growth, in dry climate marasmus is the more frequent disease associated with malnutrition. This has important consequences for treatment of the patients: Protein should be supplied only for anabolic purposes, the catabolic needs should be satisfied with carbohydrate and fat. Protein catabolism involves the urea cycle, which is located in the liver and can easily overwhelm the capacity of an already damaged organ. The resulting liver failure can be fatal.

Other malnutrition syndromes include marasmus and cachexia, although the latter is often caused by underlying illnesses.


  1. Williams CD. (1935) Kwashiorkor: a nutritional disease of children associated with a maize diet. Lancet 229:1151-2.
  2. Jamaica Gleaner : Pieces of the Past: A Pioneer, A Survivor: Dr. Cicely Williams. URL accessed on 2007-09-18.
  3. Krawinkel M. (2003) Kwashiorkor is still not fully understood. Bull World Health Organ, vol.81, no.12, p.910-911.
  • Bartel, P. R., & et al. (1977). The effects of kwashiorkor on performance on tests of neuropsychological function: Psychologia Africana Vol 17(2) Dec 1977, 153-160.
  • Brozek, J. (1978). Long-Term Effects of Clinical Malnutrition: Lessons from Africa: PsycCRITIQUES Vol 23 (4), Apr, 1978.
  • Collomb, H., & Valantin, S. (1974). A note on kwashiorkor as anorexia nervosa in infancy: Anthony, E J (Ed); Koupernik, C (Ed) (1974) The child in his family: Children at psychiatric risk Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Cravioto, J., & Robles, B. (1965). Evolution of adaptive and motor behavior during rehabilitation from kwashiorkor: American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 35(3) 1965, 449-464.
  • Geist, C. R., Zimmermann, R. R., Smith, O. W., & Geist, E. M. (1977). Emergence of a kwashiorkor-like syndrome associated with protein-calorie malnutrition in the developing rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta): Psychological Reports Vol 40(3, Pt 2) Jun 1977, 1339-1344.
  • Izuora, G. I., & Ebigbo, P. (1983). Emotional reactions of adult Africans to children with severe kwashiorkor: Child Abuse & Neglect Vol 7(3) 1983, 351-356.
  • Lebigot, F., Capdevielle, P., Thomas, J., & Delorme, N. (1972). Remarks on the psychological behavior of Biafran children evacuated to the Hopital de Campagne Francais at Gabon: Revue de Neuropsychiatrie Infantile et d'Hygiene Mentale de l'Enfance Vol 20(5) May 1972, 435-441.
  • Mises, R., & M'Boussou, M. (1984). Pathogeny of somatic disorders in children and transcultural aspects: Kwashiorkor: L'Information Psychiatrique Vol 60(8) Oct 1984, 905-910.
  • Singh, M. P., & Agrawal, P. (1987). Effect of nutrition on intellectual development: Perspectives in Psychological Researches Vol 10(2) Oct 1987, 25-29.

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