Kwashiorkor is a childhood disorder caused by lack of nutrients, including protein in the diet. The name is derived from one the Kwa languages of coastal Ghana and means "the one who is displaced" reflecting the development of the condition in the older child who has been weaned from the breast once a new sibling is born.
When a child is nursing, it receives certain amino acids vital to growth from its mother's milk. When the child is weaned, if the diet that replaces the milk is high in starches and carbohydrates, and deficient in protein (as is common in parts of the world where the bulk of the diet consists of starchy vegetables, or where famine has struck), the child may develop kwashiorkor.
Symptoms of kwashiorkor include a swollen abdomen, reddish discoloration of the hair and depigmented skin. The child has a miserable appearance with a "bull-dog" facies. Generally, the disease can be treated by adding food energy and protein to the diet; however, mortality can be as high as 60% and it can have a long-term impact on a child's physical growth and, in severe cases, affect mental development.
There are various explanations for the development of kwashiorkor, and the topic remains controversial. It is now accepted that protein deficiency, in combination with energy and micronutrient deficiency, is certainly important but may not be the key factor. The condition is likely to be due to deficiency of one of several type I nutrients (e.g iron, folic acid, iodine, selenium, vitamin C), particularly those involved with anti-oxidant protection. Important anti-oxidants in the body that are reduced in children with kwashiorkor include glutathione, albumin, vitamin E and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Therefore, if a child with reduced type I nutrients or anti-oxidants is exposed to stress (e.g. an infection or toxin) he/she is more liable to develop kwashiorkor.