Moderate malnutrition in children aged five years and younger in South Africa: are wasting or stunting being treated?

  • L Steenkamp
  • R Lategan
  • J Raubenheimer
Keywords: malnutrition, children, wasting, stunting, treatment


Objectives: The objective of the study was to describe wasting and stunting in children aged 12-60 months, admitted to targeted supplementary feeding programmes for the treatment of moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) in South Africa.

Design: A cross-sectional, descriptive study was performed.

Subjects and setting: Children with MAM, managed as outpatients at primary healthcare facilities in three provinces, were included in the study conducted between September 2012 and August 2013.

Outcome measures: Weight, height and mid-upper-arm circumference (MUAC) measurements were collected to classify the children as moderately or severely stunted or wasted.

Results: Of the total sample (n = 225), 13% (n = 30) were diagnosed as wasted, 58% (n = 131) as stunted, and 21% (n = 47) as both wasted and stunted. MUAC was significantly associated with wasting. However, an association was not found between MUAC and stunting. Of the sample, 32% (n = 72) presented with severe stunting, and 29% (n = 65) with moderate wasting. Food insecurity was associated with wasting, but not with stunting.

Conclusion: A low weight-for-age z-score resulted more from stunting than from wasting in this study. Severe stunting presented as a greater health concern than moderate wasting. Without scrutinising wasting and stunting, healthcare professionals may remain unaware of the drivers of underweight for age in children treated at South African primary healthcare facilities. Following this study’s outcomes, the sensitivity of MUAC in screening for moderate malnutrition in South African settings with a high prevalence of stunting is questionable. It is recommended that current nutritional interventions are revisited to explore the efficacy of treating children with wasting, stunting or both.

Keywords: malnutrition, children, wasting, stunting, treatment


Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 2078-6204
print ISSN: 2078-6190