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CHAIN Publications

Systemic inflammation and metabolic disturbances underlie inpatient mortality among ill children with severe malnutrition.


Children admitted to hospital with an acute illness and concurrent severe malnutrition [complicated severe malnutrition (CSM)] have a high risk of dying. The biological processes underlying their mortality are poorly understood. In this case-control study nested within a multicenter randomized controlled trial among children with CSM in Kenya and Malawi, we found that blood metabolomic and proteomic profiles robustly differentiated children who died (n = 92) from those who survived (n = 92). Fatalities were characterized by increased energetic substrates (tricarboxylic acid cycle metabolites), microbial metabolites (e.g., propionate and isobutyrate), acute phase proteins (e.g., calprotectin and C-reactive protein), and inflammatory markers (e.g., interleukin-8 and tumor necrosis factor–α). These perturbations indicated disruptions in mitochondria-related bioenergetic pathways and sepsis-like responses. This study identified specific biomolecular disturbances associated with CSM mortality, revealing that systemic inflammation and bioenergetic deficits are targetable pathophysiological processes for improving survival of this vulnerable population.

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The role of albumin and the extracellular matrix on the pathophysiology of oedema formation in severe malnutrition.


While fluid flows in a steady state from plasma, through interstitium, and into the lymph compartment, altered fluid distribution and oedema can result from abnormal Starling’s forces, increased endothelial permeability or impaired lymphatic drainage. The mechanism of oedema formation, especially the primary role of hypoalbuminaemia, remains controversial. Here, we explored the roles of albumin and albumin-independent mechanisms in oedema formation among children with severe malnutrition (SM).


We performed secondary analysis of data obtained from two independent clinical trials in Malawi and Kenya (NCT02246296 and NCT00934492). We then used an unconventional strategy of comparing children with kwashiorkor and marasmus by matching (discovery cohort, n = 144) and normalising (validation cohort, n = 98, 2 time points) for serum albumin. Untargeted proteomics was used in the discovery cohort to determine plausible albumin-independent mechanisms associated with oedema, which was validated using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and multiplex assays in the validation cohort.


We demonstrated that low serum albumin is necessary but not sufficient to develop oedema in SM. We further found that markers of extracellular matrix (ECM) degradation rather than markers of EG degradation distinguished oedematous and non-oedematous children with SM.


Our results show that oedema formation has both albumin-dependent and independent mechanisms. ECM integrity appears to have a greater role in oedema formation than EG shedding in SM.


Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), Thrasher Foundation (15122 and 9403), VLIR-UOS-Ghent University Global Minds Fund, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (OPP1131320), MRC/DfID/Wellcome Trust Global Health Trials Scheme (MR/M007367/1), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (156307), Wellcome Trust (WT083579MA).

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The Childhood Acute Illness and Nutrition (CHAIN) network nested case-cohort study protocol: a multi-omics approach to understanding mortality among children in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.


Introduction: Many acutely ill children in low- and middle-income settings have a high risk of mortality both during and after hospitalisation despite guideline-based care. Understanding the biological mechanisms underpinning mortality may suggest optimal pathways to target for interventions to further reduce mortality. The Childhood Acute Illness and Nutrition (CHAIN) Network ( Nested Case-Cohort Study (CNCC) aims to investigate biological mechanisms leading to inpatient and post-discharge mortality through an integrated multi-omic approach.
Methods and analysis; The CNCC comprises a subset of participants from the CHAIN cohort (1278/3101 hospitalised participants, including 350 children who died and 658 survivors, and 270/1140 well community children of similar age and household location) from nine sites in six countries across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Systemic proteome, metabolome, lipidome, lipopolysaccharides, haemoglobin variants, toxins, pathogens, intestinal microbiome and biomarkers of enteropathy will be determined. Computational systems biology analysis will include machine learning and multivariate predictive modelling with stacked generalization approaches accounting for the different characteristics of each biological modality. This systems approach is anticipated to yield mechanistic insights, show interactions and behaviours of the components of biological entities, and help develop interventions to reduce mortality among acutely ill children.
Ethics and dissemination. The CHAIN Network cohort and CNCC was approved by institutional review boards of all partner sites. Results will be published in open access, peer reviewed scientific journals and presented to academic and policy stakeholders. Data will be made publicly available, including uploading to recognised omics databases.
Trial registration NCT03208725.

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Toll-Like Receptor-Induced Immune Responses During Early Childhood and Their Associations With Clinical Outcomes Following Acute Illness Among Infants in Sub-Saharan Africa


Severely ill children in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) experience high rates of mortality from a broad range of infectious diseases, with the risk of infection-related death compounded by co-existing undernutrition. How undernutrition and acute illness impact immune responses in young children in LMICs remains understudied, and it is unclear what aspects of immunity are compromised in this highly vulnerable population. To address this knowledge gap, we profiled longitudinal whole blood cytokine responses to Toll-like receptor (TLR) ligands among severely ill children (n=63; 2-23 months old) with varied nutritional backgrounds, enrolled in the CHAIN Network cohort from Kampala, Uganda, and Kilifi, Kenya, and compared these responses to similar-aged well children in local communities (n=41). Cytokine responses to ligands for TLR-4 and TLR-7/8, as well as Staphylococcus enterotoxin B (SEB), demonstrated transient impairment in T cell function among acutely ill children, whereas innate cytokine responses were exaggerated during both acute illness and following clinical recovery. Nutritional status was associated with the magnitude of cytokine responses in all stimulated conditions. Among children who died following hospital discharge or required hospital re-admission, exaggerated production of interleukin-7 (IL-7) to all stimulation conditions, as well as leukopenia with reduced lymphocyte and monocyte counts, were observed. Overall, our findings demonstrate exaggerated innate immune responses to pathogen-associated molecules among acutely ill young children that persist during recovery. Heightened innate immune responses to TLR ligands may contribute to chronic systemic inflammation and dysregulated responses to subsequent infectious challenges. Further delineating mechanisms of innate immune dysregulation in this population should be prioritized to identify novel interventions that promote immune homeostasis and improve outcomes.

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Childhood mortality during and after acute illness in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – The CHAIN cohort study


Objectives Mortality during acute illness among children in low- and middle-income settings remain unacceptably high and there is increasing recognition of the importance of post-discharge mortality. A comprehensive understanding of pathways underlying mortality among acutely ill children is needed to develop interventions and improve guidelines. We aimed to determine the incidence, timing and contributions of proximal and underlying exposures for mortality among acutely ill young children from admission to hospital until 6 months after discharge in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia in the context of guideline-based care.

Design A prospective stratified cohort study recruiting acutely ill children at admission to hospital with follow up until 180 days after discharge from hospital (November 2016-July 2019).

Setting Nine urban and rural hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia across a range of facility levels, and local prevalences of HIV and malaria.

Participants Inclusion criteria were age 2-23 months, admission to hospital with acute, non-traumatic medical illness and stratified into three groups by anthropometry. Children were excluded if currently receiving pulmonary resuscitation, had a known condition requiring surgery within 6 months or known terminal illness with death expected within 6 months.

Main outcome measures Acute mortality occurring within 30-days from admission; post-discharge mortality within 180-days from discharge; characteristics with direct and indirect associations with mortality within a multi-level a priori framework including demographic, clinical, anthropometric characteristics at admission and discharge from hospital, and pre-existing child-, caregiver- and household-level characteristics.

Results Of 3101 participants (median age 11 months), 1218 were severely wasted/kwashiorkor, 763 moderately wasted and 1120 were not wasted. Of 350 deaths, 182 (52%) occurred during index admission, 234 (67%) within 30-days of admission and 168 (48%) within 180-days post-discharge. Ninety (54%) post-discharge deaths occurred at home. The ratio of inpatient to post-discharge mortality was consistent across anthropometric strata and sites. Large high and low risk groups could be disaggregated for both early and post-discharge mortality. Structural equation models identified direct pathways to mortality and multiple socioeconomic, clinical and nutritional domains acting indirectly through anthropometric status.

Conclusions Among diverse sites in Africa and South Asia, almost half of mortality occurs post-discharge. Despite being highly predictable, these deaths are not addressed in current guidelines. A fundamental shift to a risk-based approach to inpatient and post-discharge management is needed to further reduce childhood mortality and clinical trials of these approaches with outcomes of mortality, readmission and cost are warranted.

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Gender-related influences on adherence to advice and treatment-seeking guidance for infants and young children post-hospital discharge in Bangladesh


Background: Post-hospital discharge mortality risk is high among young children in many low and middle-income countries (LMICs). The available literature suggests that child, caregiver and health care provider gender all play important roles in post-discharge adherence to medical advice, treatment-seeking and recovery for ill children in LMICs, including those with undernutrition.

Methods: A qualitative study was embedded within a larger multi-country multi-disciplinary observational cohort study involving children aged less than 2 years conducted by the Childhood Acute Illness and Nutrition (CHAIN) Network. Primary data were collected from family members of 22 purposively selected cohort children. Family members were interviewed several times in their homes over the 6 months following hospital discharge (total n = 78 visits to homes). These in-depth interviews were complemented by semi-structured individual interviews with 6 community representatives, 11 community health workers and 12 facility-based health workers, and three group discussions with a total of 24 community representatives. Data were analysed using NVivo11 software, using both narrative and thematic approaches.

Results: We identified gender-related influences at health service/system and household/community levels. These influences interplayed to family members’ adherence to medical advice and treatment-seeking after hospital discharge, with potentially important implications for children’s recovery. Health service/system level influences included: fewer female medical practitioners in healthcare facilities, which influenced mothers’ interest and ability to consult them promptly for their child’s illnesses; gender-related challenges for community health workers in supporting mothers with counselling and advice; and male caregivers’ being largely absent from the paediatric wards where information sessions to support post-discharge care are offered. Gendered household/community level influences included: women’s role as primary caretakers for children and available levels of support; male family members having a dominant role in decision-making related to food and treatment-seeking behaviour; and greater reluctance among parents to invest money and time in the treatment of female children, as compared to male children.

Conclusions: A complex web of gender related influences at health systems/services and household/community levels have important implications for young children’s recovery post-discharge. Immediate interventions with potential for positive impact include awareness-raising among all stakeholders – including male family members – on how gender influences child health and recovery, and how to reduce adverse consequences of gender-based discrimination. Specific interventions could include communication interventions in facilities and homes, and changes in routine practices such as who is present in facility interactions. To maximise and sustain the impact of immediate actions and interventions, the structural drivers of women’s position in society and gender inequity must also be tackled. This requires interventions to ensure equal equitable opportunities for men and women in all aspects of life, including access to education and income generation activities. Given patriarchal norms locally and globally, men will likely need special targeting and support in achieving these objectives.

Keywords: Bangladesh; Children; Gender relations; Hospitalization; Treatment-seeking; Undernutrition.

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Model for developing context-sensitive responses to vulnerability in research: managing ethical dilemmas faced by frontline research staff in Kenya


Health research in low-resource settings often involves individuals and populations defined as ‘vulnerable’. There is growing attention in the literature to the ethical dilemmas that frontline research staff face while conducting such research. However, there is little documented as to how research staff might support one another in identifying and handling these dilemmas in different contexts. Over the course of conducting empirical ethics research embedded in the Childhood Acute Illness & Nutrition Network, we developed an approach to examine and respond to the ethical issues and dilemmas faced by the study teams, particularly frontline staff. In this paper we describe the specific tools and approach we developed, which centred on regular cross-team ethics reflection sessions, and share lessons learnt. We suggest that all studies involving potentially vulnerable participants should incorporate activities and processes to support frontline staff in identifying, reflecting on and responding to ethical dilemmas, throughout studies. We outline the resources needed to do this and share piloted tools for further adaptation and evaluation. Such initiatives should complement and feed into-and certainly not in any way replace or substitute for-strong institutional ethics review, safeguarding and health and safety policies and processes, as well broader staff training and career support initiatives.

Keywords: child health; hospital-based study; paediatrics; public health.

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Vulnerability, Agency, and the Research Encounter: Family Members’ Experiences and Perceptions of Participating in an Observational Clinical Study in Kenya


Pediatric clinical research in low-resourced countries involves individuals defined as “vulnerable” in research ethics guidance. Insights from research participants can strengthen the design and oversight of studies. We share family members’ perspectives and experiences of an observational clinical study conducted in one Kenyan hospital as part of an integrated empirical ethics study. Employing qualitative methods, we explored how research encounters featured in family members’ care-seeking journeys. Our data reveals that children’s vulnerability is intricately interwoven with that of their families, and that research processes and procedures can inadvertently add to hidden burdens for families. In research, the potential for layered and intersecting situational and structural vulnerability should be considered, and participants’ agency in constrained research contexts actively recognized and protected.

Keywords: agency; childhood acute illness; integrated empirical ethics; low- and middle-income countries; vulnerability.

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Strengthening the role of community health workers in supporting the recovery of ill, undernourished children post hospital discharge: qualitative insights from key stakeholders in Bangladesh and Kenya


Background: Undernourished children in low- and middle-income countries remain at elevated risk of death following hospital discharge, even when treated during hospitalisation using World Health Organisation recommended guidelines. The role of community health workers (CHWs) in supporting post-discharge recovery to improve outcomes has not been adequately explored.

Methods: This paper draws on qualitative research conducted as part of the Childhood Acute Illnesses and Nutrition (CHAIN) Network in Bangladesh and Kenya. We interviewed family members of 64 acutely ill children admitted across four hospitals (a rural and urban hospital in each country). 27 children had severe wasting or kwashiorkor on admission. Family members were interviewed in their homes soon after discharge, and up to three further times over the following six to fourteen months. These data were supplemented by observations in facilities and homes, key informant interviews with CHWs and policy makers, and a review of relevant guidelines.

Results: Guidelines suggest that CHWs could play a role in supporting recovery of undernourished children post-discharge, but the mechanisms to link CHWs into post-discharge support processes are not specified. Few families we interviewed reported any interactions with CHWs post-discharge, especially in Kenya, despite our data suggesting that opportunities for CHWs to assist families post-discharge include providing context sensitive information and education, identification of danger signs, and supporting linkages with community-based services and interventions. Although CHWs are generally present in communities, challenges they face in conducting their roles include unmanageable workloads, few incentives, lack of equipment and supplies and inadequate support from supervisors and some community members.

Conclusion: A multi-pronged approach before or on discharge is needed to strengthen linkages between CHWs and children vulnerable to poor outcomes, supported by clear guidance. To encourage scale-ability and cost-effectiveness of interventions, the most vulnerable, high-risk children, should be targeted, including undernourished children. Intervention designs must also take into account existing health worker shortages and training levels, including for CHWs, and how any new tasks or personnel are incorporated into hospital and broader health system hierarchies and systems. Any such interventions will need to be evaluated in carefully designed studies, including tracking for unintended consequences.

Keywords: Acute illness; Children; Community health workers; Post-hospital discharge; Undernutrition.

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