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Study finds arm circumference is accurate measure of malnutrition in children with diarrheal illnesses

Malnutrition is a leading cause of mortality in children under the age of five, contributing to approximately 3.5 million child deaths worldwide each year. Currently, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders recommend using calculations based on the patient's body weight or arm circumference to assess their nutritional status. But, it's not known if they are reliable measures of malnutrition in children that suffer from diarrhea and dehydration — two symptoms that can affect body weight and are common in undernourished kids.

Now, a study (subscription required) published this month in the Journal of Nutrition shows that mid-upper arm circumference can accurately assess malnutrition in children with diarrhea and dehydration and it's better at assessing malnutrition than weight-based measures.

In the study, Rhode Island Hospital emergency medicine physician Adam Levine, MD, and his team analyzed 721 records of children (under the age of five) who were examined at an urban hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh for acute diarrhea. They found that measurements based on a child's mid-upper arm circumference accurately diagnosed malnutrition, but measurements based on weight were unreliable and misdiagnosed about 12-14 percent of the cases when the patient had diarrhea and dehydration.

"Because dehydration lowers a child's weight, using weight-based assessments in children presenting with diarrhea may be misleading," Levine said in a press release. "When children are rehydrated and returned to a stable, pre-illness weight, they may still suffer from severe acute malnutrition."

Since poor nutrition is a common problem in areas where medical resources are limited, the best tools to diagnose malnutrition are effective and inexpensive. Tape measures are cheaper and are often easier to come by than scales, so the results of this study are especially encouraging for people who want the best and most affordable way to measure malnutrition in children. "Based on our results, clinicians and community health workers can confidently use the mid-upper arm measurement to guide nutritional supplementation for children with diarrhea," said Levine.

Previously: Stanford physician Sanjay Basu on using data to prevent chronic disease in the developing worldMalnourished children have young guts and Seeking solutions to childhood anemia in China
Photo by European Commission DG ECHO

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