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What Causes Kwashiorkor?

By Andy Josiah
Updated May 17, 2024
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Kwashiorkor is a childhood disease characterized by malnutrition, which means that patients who suffer from this condition lack certain nutrients in their diets. Although this disease is usually associated with a deficiency in protein, other types of deficiencies are also listed as contributing factors. This particular disease is most common in poorer regions in the world, where poverty, famine and a lack of knowledge concerning nutrition contribute to unbalanced diets. The disease is incredibly rare in wealthier countries.

The term "kwashiorkor" originates from the Ga language, which is mostly spoken in the southeastern region of the West African country of Ghana. Jamaican pediatrician Cicely D. Williams came up with the term when she was working in Ghana between 1929 and 1935, at a time when the region was under British colonization and known as the Gold Coast. Trying to solve the mystery of children winding up with bloated bellies, swollen legs, and lighter-than-normal skin pigmentation, Williams asked an African nurse if there was a name for such a condition. The nurse replied that it was called "kwashiorkor," referring to an illness that an older child gets when a new brother or sister arrives. Interpreting the term as a condition that occurs when weaned children do not get enough food, Williams published her findings in a 1935 article discussing maternal and child care.

Before Williams arrived at the Gold Coast, kwashiorkor was misdiagnosed as pellagra. This is a condition caused by a deficiency of the vitamin niacin, which is also known as vitamin B3. Pellagra shares symptoms with kwashiorkor such as diarrhea, although it is mainly characterized by dementia and skin inflammation known as dermatitis. This disorder is also set apart from marasmus, which is another protein-deficiency disease, in that marasmus lacks edema and sufficient intake of calories, even though it also features emaciation and a depletion of energy.

Since the work of Williams, it has been accepted in the medical community that this disorder is the result of low protein intake. A lack of micronutrients such as iron, iodine and vitamin C, as well as antioxidants such as albumin, glutathione, polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E are also cited as contributory. Diagnosis is conducted by running certain protein-level and blood tests, and treatment usually consists of giving the child food with sufficient amounts of the aforementioned elements. Unfortunately, even when cured, children afflicted with kwashiorkor can never attain the optimal level of growth.

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Discussion Comments

By anon265190 — On May 01, 2012

How can you avoid getting it? I am a vegetarian and I am worried that I may get it.

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