Across the world, Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) is the largest killer of children under five years of age, contributing to nearly half of all childhood deaths. Defined by a very low weight to height ratio, visible severe wasting, or by the presence of nutritional edema, an estimated 20 million children suffer from SAM, and malnutrition contributes to the death of more than 3 million children a year.

Severe acute malnutrition is hunger and starvation clinically defined: hunger and starvation for nutrients. Without proper treatment, the majority of children who survive live with major compromises to their health, as well as to their cognitive and physical capabilities.

Who does malnutrition affect?

The majority of children affected by severe acute malnutrition live in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The problem occurs mainly in families suffering from the impact of grinding chronic poverty. Many of these families have limited access to nutritious food and education. Unfortunately, this description characterizes the living conditions of many African citizens, and few African nations have specific policies aimed at addressing SAM comprehensively.

What ages of children suffer from malnutrition?

Children of any age (and even adults) can be malnourished, but most children who suffer from severe acute malnutrition are between 6 months and 5 years of age. This is a vulnerable period in a child’s life because in about the sixth month, breast milk no longer adequately provides all the needed nutrition for a child. The mother therefore strives to add other food to the diet. At the same time, the child has a very small stomach and cannot eat large quantities of what is likely already energy deficient food.

Countries that experience high rates of malnutrition frequently also have high birth rates. This often compounds the problem of malnutrition, as an older child may be weaned earlier than recommended when a younger sibling is born.

In times of decreased food in the home, a very young child does not yet have the ability to compete with older and equally hungry family members for what food is available.

The young child's need for supervision may also prevent the child from taking part in village foraging like that of older children. (School-age children often find food at other homes or in the area around their villages, picking berries or raiding gardens.)

By age five, a child typically has the dexterity, independence and shrewdness to seek out food, and his/her immune system has had exposure to disease and time to mature. At this point, the child is less likely to experience severe acute malnutrition.

Are there different types of acute malnutrition?

Children are defined as healthy, moderately acutely malnourished, or severely acutely malnourished according to international standards and guidelines.

Severely malnourished children sometimes look wasted (extremely skinny), a condition known as marasmus. Other severely malnourished children experience a painful swelling/buildup of fluid under the skin known as edema.


Learn more:

Acute malnutrition: an everyday emergency (2014)

Community-based management of severe acute malnutrition WHO guidelines (2007)

WHO Child Growth Standards (2009)