Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Antibiotics in severely malnourished children: systematic review of efficacy, safety and pharmacokinetics

Marzia Lazzerini & David Tickell

Objective

To systemically review the evidence in support of World Health Organization guidelines recommending broad-spectrum antibiotics for children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM).

Methods

CENTRAL, MEDLINE, EMBASE, LILACS, POPLINE, CAB Abstracts and ongoing trials registers were searched. Experts were contacted. Conference proceedings and reference lists were manually searched. All study types, except single case reports, were included.

Findings

Two randomized controlled trials (RCTs), one before-and-after study and two retrospective reports on clinical efficacy and safety were retrieved, together with 18 pharmacokinetic studies. Trial quality was generally poor and results could not be pooled due to heterogeneity. Oral amoxicillin for 5 days was as effective as intramuscular ceftriaxone for 2 days (1 RCT). For uncomplicated SAM, amoxicillin showed no benefit over placebo (1 retrospective study). The introduction of a standardized regimen using ampicillin and gentamicin significantly reduced mortality in hospitalized children (odds ratio, OR: 4.0; 95% confidence interval, CI: 1.7–9.8; 1 before-and-after study). Oral chloramphenicol was as effective as trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole in children with pneumonia (1 RCT). Pharmacokinetic data suggest that normal doses of penicillins, cotrimoxazole and gentamicin are safe in malnourished children, while the dose or frequency of chloramphenicol requires adjustment. Existing evidence is not strong enough to further clarify recommendations for antibiotic treatment in children with SAM.

Conclusion

Large RCTs are needed to define optimal antibiotic treatment in children with SAM with and without complications. Further research into gentamicin and chloramphenicol toxicity and into the pharmacokinetics of ceftriaxone and ciprofloxacin is also required.