Intestinal permeability in kwashiorkor

David R. Brewster, M. J. Manary, I. S. Menzies, E. V. O'Loughlin, R. L. Henry

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Intestinal permeability can be assessed non-invasively using the lactulose-rhamnose (L-R) test, which is a reliable measure of small intestinal integrity. Aims - To determine risk factors for abnormal intestinal permeability in kwashiorkor, and to measure changes in L-R ratios with inpatient rehabilitation. Design - A case-control study of 149 kwashiorkor cases and 45 hospital controls. The L-R test was adapted to study kwashiorkor in Malawi, with testing at weekly intervals during nutritional rehabilitation. Urine sugars were measured by thin layer chromatography in London. Results - The initial geometric mean L-R ratios (x100) (with 95% confidence interval) in kwashiorkor were 17.3 (15.0 to 19.8) compared with 7.0 (5.6 to 8.7) for controls. Normal ratios are <5, so the high ratios in controls indicate tropical enteropathy syndrome. Abnormal permeability in kwashiorkor was associated with death, oliguria, sepsis, diarrhoea, wasting and young age. Diarrhoea and death were associated with both decreased L-rhamnose absorption (diminished absorptive surface area) and increased lactulose permeation (impaired barrier function) whereas nutritional wasting affected only L-rhamnose absorption. Despite clinical recovery, mean L-R ratios improved little on treatment, with mean weekly ratios of 16.3 (14.0 to 19.0), 13.3 (11.1 to 15.9) and 14.4 (11.0 to 18.8). Conclusion - Abnormal intestinal permeability in kwashiorkor correlates with disease severity, and improves only slowly with nutritional rehabilitation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)236-241
Number of pages6
JournalArchives of Disease in Childhood
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1997


  • Africa
  • intestinal permeability
  • kwashiorkor


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