In July 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) released updated guidelines for the management section of wasting and nutritional oedema, also known as acute malnutrition, in infants and children under 5. An update of the prevention section of the guidelines is expected this fall. The guidelines build on the 2013 guidelines by further enhancing care of infants and children with wasting and nutrition oedema as these conditions lead to higher mortality rates and other negative health outcomes. The guidelines were drafted and completed as one of the key commitments of WHO to the Global Action Plan for Child Wasting which was released in 2019 by the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General. The guidelines include four areas of focus:
- Management of infants less than 6 months of age at risk of poor growth and development,
- Management of infants and children 6-59 months with wasting and/or nutritional oedema,
- Post-exit interventions after recovery from wasting and/or nutritional oedema, and
- Prevention of wasting and nutritional oedema from a child health perspective (to be developed).
Ongoing crises such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, conflict, and rising costs of food have exacerbated rates of malnutrition, particularly among those under 5 years of age. Currently, over 45.4 million infants and children under 5 years of age experience wasting each year. Governments and other stakeholders have struggled to make progress on Sustainable Development Goal 2 which is to reach “Zero Hunger” by 2030. The new guidelines include 19 total recommendations, 12 of which are new and 7 of which are updated, along with 10 good practice statements. Key recommendations and good practice statements for each focus area include:
Focus area: Management of infants less than 6 months of age at risk of poor growth and development
- Admission, referral, transfer and exit criteria for infants at risk of poor growth and development:
- Referring infants for inpatient care if they have one or more Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (IMCI) danger signs, acute medical problems, or conditions under severe classification as per IMCI, nutritional oedema, or recent weight loss. If they do not meet any of the above criteria, an in-depth assessment should be conducted to determine if inpatient admission or outpatient management is necessary and guidelines are provided on transitioning from inpatient care to outpatient care as well as to transferring out of, and/or ending outpatient care due to improved health status and growth and development.
- Follow-up visits, with possible reduced frequency of visits, should continue until 6 months of age followed by referral to appropriate services.
- Management of breastfeeding/lactation difficulties in mothers/caregivers of infants at risk of poor growth and development
- Comprehensive assessments should be conducted by health care providers and best practices for managing breastfeeding/lactation challenges should be followed.
- Supplemental milk for infants at risk of poor growth and development
- For infants less than six months of age with severe wasting and/or nutritional oedema who are admitted for inpatient care should be breastfed where possible and support should be provided to the mothers or female caregivers. If an infant is not breastfed, support should be given to the mother or female caregiver to re-lactate. If this is not possible, wet nursing should be encouraged. A supplementary feed should be provided when clinically necessary. An assessment of the physical and mental health status of mothers or caregivers should be promoted and relevant treatment or support provided.
- Interventions for mothers/caregivers of infants at risk of poor growth and development
- To optimize growth and development in infants at risk of poor growth and development, a comprehensive assessment and support is recommended to ensure maternal/caregiver physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Focus area: Management of infants and children 6-59 months of age with wasting and/or nutrition oedema
- Admission, referral, transfer, and exit criteria for infants and children with severe wasting and/or nutritional oedema
- Referring infants and children (6-59 months) with severe wasting and/or nutritional oedema for inpatient care if they have one or more Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (IMCI) danger signs, acute medical problems, severe nutritional oedema, or poor appetite (failed appetite test). If they do not meet any of the above criteria, an in-depth assessment should be conducted to determine if inpatient admission or outpatient management is necessary and guidelines are provided on transitioning from inpatient care to outpatient care as well as to transferring out of, and/or ending outpatient care due to improved health status and growth and development. Continuity of care is vital for the safe and effective follow-up of infants and children with severe wasting and/or nutritional oedema. Ongoing medical and psychological support services are key and one important aspect of discharge panning is assessing the child’s home environment to ensure environmental health aspects (water, sanitation, hygiene), food security, economic stability, and the mental and physical health of caregivers.
- Identification of dehydration in infants and children with wasting and/or nutritional oedema
- Classifying hydration status in children with wasting and/or nutritional oedema to provide and monitor appropriate treatment.
- Rehydration fluids for infants and children with wasting and/or nutritional oedema and dehydration but who are not shocked
- Providing appropriate rehydration fluids, like Rehydration Solution for Malnourished Children (ReSoMal) or Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS).
- Hydrolyzed formulas for infants and children with severe wasting and/or nutritional oedema who are not tolerating F-75 or F-100
- There is insufficient evidence to recommend switching to hydrolyzed formulas if they are not tolerating F-75 or F-100 milks.
- Ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) for treatment of severe wasting and/or nutritional oedema
- RUTF should be given in specific quantities that will provide 150-185 kcal/kg/day until anthropometric recovery and resolution of nutritional oedema; or 150-185 kcal/kg/day until the child is no longer severely wasted and does not have nutritional oedema, then the quantity can be reduced to provide 100-130 kcal/kg/day, until anthropometric recovery and resolution of nutritional oedema.
- Dietary management of infants and children with moderate wasting
- Nutrient dense diet should be provided to meet extra needs or recovery of weight and height and for improved survival, health, and development.
- Those with moderate wasting should be assessed comprehensively and treated wherever possible for medical and psychosocial problems leading to or exacerbating this episode of wasting.
- Specially formulated foods (SFF) interventions with counseling should be considered with a number of clinical factors, including failing to recover from moderate wasting, co-morbidities, and others, in addition to social factors like poor maternal health and wellbeing.
- SFF as well as counseling and the provision of home foods for them and their families should be considered.
- For those needing supplementation with SFF, lipid-based nutrient supplements (LNS) are the preferred type. When not available, Fortified Blended Foods with added sugar, oil, and/or milk are preferred compared to Fortified Blended Foods without these attributes. Additionally, SFF should be given to provide 40-60% of the total daily energy requirements needed to achieve anthropometric recovery. High-risk moderate acute malnutrition is defined with a mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) of 11.5 to <11.9 or weight-for-age (WAZ) <-3.5.
- Identification and management of wasting and nutritional oedema by community health workers
- Assessment, classification and management or referral of infants and children 6-59 months of age with wasting and/or nutritional oedema can be carried out by community health workers as long as they receive adequate training, and regular supervision of their work is built into service delivery.
Focus area: Post-exit interventions after recovery from wasting and/or nutritional oedema
- Support for mothers/caregivers should be provided after infants and children are treated for wasting and/or nutritional oedema. This can include counseling and education, responsive care, and safe water, hygiene, and sanitation interventions.
- Psychosocial stimulation should continue to be provided by mothers/caregivers after transfer from inpatient to outpatient treatment.
- Cash transfers in addition to routine care may be provided to decrease relapse and improve overall child health during outpatient care and after exit from treatment, depending on contextual factors such as cost.
- In infants and children with severe wasting and/or nutritional oedema who are HIV negative, daily oral co-trimoxazole prophylaxis should not be provided after transfer from inpatient treatment and/or exit from outpatient treatment as part of routine care.
Additional standing WHO recommendations and best practice statements on wasting and nutritional oedema were also carried over from previous guidelines, including classifying nutritional status according to WHO child growth standards, providing children with severe wasting and/or nutritional oedema the recommended daily nutrient intake of vitamin A throughout treatment period, promotion and support for exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months and continued breastfeeding until 24 months and beyond, and others.
In addition to these guidelines, WHO will be putting out operational guidance to accompany them. As policymakers, governments and governmental agencies, program implementers, non-governmental organizations and other civil society organizations, and healthcare workers aim to reduce and prevent wasting and nutrition oedema in infants and children, they should rely on these guidelines to develop and implement evidence-based policies, programs, best practices, and regulations.