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Facts for Life

Nutrition and growth

Supporting Information


Very thin and/or swollen children need special medical care. They should be taken to a trained health worker or health facility for assessment and treatment.

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A short period of inadequate nutrition together with illness or infection can quickly make a child dangerously malnourished. The child needs urgent treatment with special foods and medicine. He or she should be taken directly to the nearest health-care provider.

Children with severe acute malnutrition are very thin. They may also have swollen parts of the body, usually the feet and the legs. A trained health worker can identify severe acute malnutrition by measuring the child's weight and height, using a special band to measure the upper arms or checking for equal swelling in both legs.

Treating a child with severe acute malnutrition effectively needs to be done by a health-care provider. The treatment depends on how sick the child is. Most children over 6 months old can be treated with a special ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF). This is a soft pre-packaged food that contains all the nutrients needed for the child's recovery. RUTF is easy for children to consume directly from the packet and requires no mixing with water or other foods, making it safe to use anywhere. Parents or other caregivers are provided with a week's supply of RUTF, along with information on how to treat the child. Medications are also provided as part of the treatment.The child should be taken back to the health-care provider every week to monitor his or her progress.

More intensive treatment is needed for children who are not able to eat RUTF, have other medical problems or are under 6 months old. These cases should be referred to a hospital or other facility that can provide 24-hour medical care, therapeutic milks and breastfeeding support.

Children with severe acute malnutrition get cold more quickly than other children, so they must always be kept warm. Skin-to-skin contact with the mother or other caregiver can help keep a child warm. Both the mother and child should be covered. The child's head should also be kept covered.

Although children with severe acute malnutrition need special nutritional treatment, breastmilk is still a vital source of nutrients and protection from disease. In addition to the special treatment (either at home or in a facility), children who are breastfeeding should continue to breastfeed.

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