The media reported last weekend that the number of children admitted to hospital with malnutrition was almost 2,500 in the first six months of 2020, double the number over the same period last year i.
Coverage of this story in outlets such as The Observer may have implied that poverty and neglect, exacerbated by the lockdown measures, account for this apparently significant increase. A similar suggestion has since been adopted by a number of regional papers.
As a recent Lords Select Committee report into poverty confirmed ii, it is true that many children in the UK are undernourished because of deprivation and this is serious cause for concern. However, we would urge caution around the interpretation of this data. A high proportion of children in hospital who are malnourished will be so because of children disease-related factors and it is inappropriate to assume that their undernourishment is as a result of deprivation.
The three hospitals mentioned in the reporting have teams with a strong interest in nutrition and are centers of excellence. It is probable that some of the increase in numbers is related to an improvement in malnutrition screening, rather than an increase in rates of malnutrition as well as likely higher patient intake amongst children with diseases such as cancer and cystic fibrosis that are associated with malnutrition risk.
We are of course concerned by any reports about malnutrition in any age group. However, if we are to improve identification and management of malnutrition, it is imperative that we always acknowledge the underlying causes. It is also important to ensure that parents of children who become malnourished because of an underlying disease or medical condition are not made to feel that they have been neglectful as this is likely to increase the burden on families and make early identification harder.
- The Guardian (12th July 2020) ‘Cases of child malnutrition in England double in last six months’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jul/12/cases-of-child-malnutrition-double-in-last-six-months Last accessed: 13th July 2020
- Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment (July 2020) Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld5801/ldselect/ldfphe/85/8502.htm Last accessed: July 2020