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Inadequacy of a 12.5 cm MUAC as a cutoff for malnutrition for children aged three to five years

Emmanuel Gai
J. Clarke McIntosh


Introduction: MUAC (mid-upper arm circumference) is a simple and easily taught screening tool for identifying malnutrition in children. South Sudan use a MUAC of 12.5 cm for children aged between six months and five years as a cut-off for moderate acute malnutrition. Currently, in South Sudan, children from six months to five years have the same MUAC cutoff for malnutrition.

Method: This study evaluated the sensitivity of using a MUAC of 12.5 cm as a screening tool for children between 6 and 60 months applied to data obtained from children enrolled in urban and rural primary schools in Maridi County, South Sudan. We used the 12.5 cm cutoff which was 2 standard deviations from the median for boys at nine months and for girls at 20 months. We also used 14.0 cm as the cutoff and compared the number of children identified, and also the false positive rate, assuming -2 SD from the median to be the accepted norm for malnutrition. Finally, we considered two different standards, using 14.0 cm for children aged 3-5 years and 12.5 cm for children under three years.

Results: Comparing the results obtained using the two different MUAC standards (12.5 cm versus 14.0 cm) against a single MUAC standard there is a dramatic difference in outcome. Using the current standard (12.5 cm), only 7.3% of the children were found to be malnourished. Using 14.0 cm, 33.8 % were found to be malnourished (Table 4). If we accept the norm of 2 SD below the median for age as an adequate definition of malnutrition, the false positive rate using 14.0 cm is 9.6 %, an acceptable figure for a screening device, but the false negative rate for 12.5 cm is 17.4 %, a clearly unacceptable rate for a screening device. If, however, instead of using one cut-off for children from six months to five years, a period characterized normally by rapid growth and changes in body composition, we used two different standards—12.5 cm for those under three years and 14 cm for those aged 3-5 years, the number of false positives drops down to 2.7% and false negatives to 0.9 %

Conclusion: We suggest that the use of 12.5 cm for malnourished children is inappropriate above two years, that 14 cm would be a more appropriate screening measurement from 3-5 years of age.

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eISSN: 2309-4613
print ISSN: 2309-4605