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ImportanceMortality among African children hospitalized with severe malnutrition remains high, with sudden, unexpected deaths leading to speculation about potential cardiac causes. Malnutrition is considered high risk for cardiac failure, but evidence is limited.ObjectiveTo investigate the role of cardiovascular dysfunction in African children with severe, acute malnutrition (SAM).Design, setting, and participantsA prospective, matched case-control study, the Cardiac Physiology in Malnutrition (CAPMAL) study, of 88 children with SAM (exposed) vs 22 severity-matched patients without SAM (unexposed) was conducted between March 7, 2011, and February 20, 2012; data analysis was performed from October 1, 2012, to March 1, 2016.ExposuresEchocardiographic and electrocardiographic (ECG) recordings (including 7-day Holter monitoring) at admission, day 7, and day 28.Main outcomes and measuresFindings in children with (cases) and without (controls) SAM and in marasmus and kwashiorkor phenotypes were compared.ResultsEighty-eight children (52 with marasmus and 36 with kwashiorkor) of the 418 admitted with SAM and 22 severity-matched controls were studied. A total of 63 children (57%) were boys; median age at admission was 19 months (range, 12-39 months). On admission, abnormalities more common in cases vs controls included severe hypokalemia (potassium <2.5 mEq/L) (18 of 81 [22%] vs 0%), hypoalbuminemia (albumin level <3.4 g/dL) (66 of 88 [75%] vs 4 of 22 [18%]), and hypothyroidism (free thyroxine level <0.70 ng/dL or thyrotropin level >4.2 mU/L) (18 of 74 [24%] vs 1 of 21 [5%]) and were associated with typical electrocardiographic changes (T-wave inversion: odds ratio, 7.3; 95% CI, 1.9-28.0; P = .001), which corrected as potassium levels improved. Fourteen children with SAM (16%) but no controls died. Myocardial mass was lower in cases on admission but not by day 7. Results of the Tei Index, a measure of global cardiac function, were within the reference range and similar in cases (median, 0.37; interquartile range [IQR], 0.26-0.45) and controls (median, 0.36; IQR, 0.28-0.42). Echocardiography detected no evidence of cardiac failure among children with SAM, including those receiving intravenous fluids to correct hypovolemia. Cardiac dysfunction was generally associated with comorbidity and typical of hypovolemia, with low cardiac index (median, 4.9 L/min/m2; IQR, 3.9-6.1 L/min/m2), high systemic vascular resistance index (median, 1333 dyne seconds/cm5/m2; IQR, 1133-1752 dyne seconds/cm5/m2), and with few differences between the marasmus and kwashiorkor manifestations of malnutrition. Seven-day continuous ECG Holter monitoring during the high-risk initial refeeding period demonstrated self-limiting significant ventricular arrhythmias in 33 of 55 cases (60%) and 6 of 18 controls (33%) (P = .049); none were temporally related to adverse events, including fatalities.Conclusions and relevanceThere is little evidence that African children with SAM are at greater risk of cardiac dysfunction or clinically significant arrhythmias than those without SAM or that marasmus and kwashiorkor differed in cardiovascular profile. These findings should prompt a review of current guidelines.

Original publication





JAMA network open

Publication Date





Kenya Medical Research Institute Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Centre for Geographic Medicine Research-Coast, Kilifi, Kenya.


Heart, Humans, Heart Diseases, Protein-Energy Malnutrition, Kwashiorkor, Electrocardiography, Ambulatory, Case-Control Studies, Prospective Studies, Child, Preschool, Infant, Kenya, Female, Male