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What is Kwashiorkor?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Kwashiorkor is a disease that appears to be caused through severe malnutrition, and it primarily impacts children. It is most common in developing nations, where famine conditions are more likely. Many people in developed countries are familiar with the disease — although they probably don't know the specific name — because sufferers are often featured in reports and news stories about malnutrition in developing countries.

The disease was first identified and described in the 1930s in Ghana. The word kwashiorkor comes from the Ga language, which is widely spoken in many parts of that country. It literally means “one who is physically displaced,” a reference to the fact that the disease emerges in children who have just been weaned off of breast milk. When the disease is not immediately addressed, it can cause severe disabilities, and if left untreated, it can lead to death.

Protein deficiency is an important aspect of this condition, although it does not appear to be the only cause. While children are breastfeeding, they get a number of vital nutrients and amino acids through their mothers' milk. As long as a mother is eating reasonably well, her child should stay healthy. Once a child is weaned, however, a new source of these vital nutrients needs to be obtained. Unfortunately, many people in developing nations eat starch heavy diets, without the protein sources and fresh fruits and vegetables that they need.

One of the most characteristic symptoms of kwashiorkor is a distended belly. Victims of the disease also suffer from lethargy, slow growth, anemia, edema, hair loss, and changes in hair and skin color. Many of these symptoms are common to a wide range of malnutrition conditions, and they are often very familiar to aid workers in developing countries. The malnutrition disease can also develop in first world countries, however, especially among poor and underprivileged groups, along with the elderly.

Like other health problems caused through malnutrition, kwashiorkor can be avoided and treated through proper diet. In addition to eating a healthy, balanced diet, it is also important for people to eat food that has been stored properly. Some research has suggested that this disease may be related to moldy or rotting food, in addition to being caused by malnutrition. Many aid organizations offer nutritional education and grants of food or farming assistance to help prevent the condition.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By pleonasm — On Oct 16, 2012

@indigomoth - Education is the best policy. Grassroots education, in particular, and teaching local women to teach other women. Hopefully the internet will help with collaboration to start to stamp out these kinds of diseases.

By indigomoth — On Oct 15, 2012

@hinder - Well, the treatment is to feed the kids protein. If they get regular protein, even a little bit, they don't suffer from this condition.

I was an aid worker for a couple of years and it really is often a matter of education. People in some areas have no access to education, but are displaced from their ancient tribal practices, because they've moved for work, or because of natural disasters or war and they just have no idea what to do with the new foods. They never traditionally ate meat because it prevented kwashiorkor and malnutrition. They ate it because the tribe ate it.

And now, when there's no meat available, they don't realize that they need to replace it with peanuts or something else. And they get influenced by advertising. One of the saddest stories I heard over there was a woman who didn't have milk for her baby, so she fed it an expensive tea. She had been told the tea was good for you and she couldn't understand why the baby sickened. She wasn't stupid. She had just never been told the basics of nutrition.

By browncoat — On Oct 15, 2012

@anon5949 - I believe that it is almost always due to protein deficiency. In fact I always thought it was basically another name for protein deficiency.

If a kid was unable to absorb protein properly for some reason, it could lead to similar symptoms, I suppose. But, it mostly occurs in children who are simply not given enough protein. One of the ways you can tell when the symptoms aren't that obvious is when kids have dry-looking, reddish hair when they would ordinarily have black hair.

But, the article is right. The main symptoms are the swollen belly and a great deal of pain and discomfort and it can eventually lead to brain damage. It's a tragedy that such an easily prevented disease is so prevalent. I'll never understand why it hasn't been stamped out already.

By anon243706 — On Jan 29, 2012

Very good report but I would like to know how many lives it's claimed.

By anon163835 — On Mar 29, 2011

The other countries must provide some food to the poor countries!

By anon140655 — On Jan 08, 2011

very useful. helped me with my homework.

By anon125639 — On Nov 10, 2010

what are the organizations that help prevent kwashiorkor? Anyway, this helped a lot. Thanks.

By anon92068 — On Jun 25, 2010

this is the best information on this disease.

Thanks a lot.

By anon80531 — On Apr 27, 2010

this helped me on my homework. Thanks for letting this rare disease be known. It's something i would definitely be frightened to go through.

By anon78902 — On Apr 20, 2010

Very useful! Helped with homework, thank you!

By anon70760 — On Mar 16, 2010

content is very useful.

By anon56771 — On Dec 17, 2009

This is really wonderful information. i came to know about this disease properly.

By anon56498 — On Dec 15, 2009

That proper helped me do my work.

By anon47278 — On Oct 03, 2009

thanks. this article really helped me with my essay on kwashiorkor thanks.

By anon46196 — On Sep 23, 2009

This article really helped, I had to write an essay about Kwashiorkor and didn't know where to start! Thanks :)

By anon36676 — On Jul 14, 2009

this article is great thanks you you are so clever. omg

By anon18268 — On Sep 18, 2008

thanx i had a science essay about kwashiorkor and this really helped. thanx again

By anon10751 — On Apr 02, 2008

Thank you WiseGeek!! I had to do a Science Essay about Diet and Food Habits, and this article was very helpful!! TrangNguyen

By anon9231 — On Mar 02, 2008

where is the biggest population of this disease?

By hinder — On Dec 11, 2007

is there a certain treatment for that disease nowadays????

By anon5949 — On Dec 11, 2007

are there any other factors that can lead to this disease?????

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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