• childhood anaemia;
  • recognition;
  • caregiver;
  • pallor;
  • western Kenya


objectives To explore which pallor signs and symptoms of severe anaemia could be recognized by primary caregivers following minimal instructions.

methods Data from three community-based cross-sectional surveys were used. Test characteristics to predict haemoglobin (Hb) concentrations < 5 and < 7 g/dl were compared for different combinations of pallor signs (eyelid, tongue, palmar and nailbed) and symptoms.

results Pallor signs and haemoglobin levels were available for 3782 children under 5 years of age from 2609 households. Comparisons of the sensitivity and specificity at a range of haemoglobin cut-offs showed that Hb < 5 g/dl was associated with the greatest combined sensitivity and specificity for pallor at any anatomical site (sensitivity = 75.6%, specificity = 63.0%, Youden index = 38.6). Higher or lower haemoglobin cut-offs resulted in more children being misclassified. Similar results were obtained for all individual pallor sites. Combining a history of soil eating with pallor at any site improved the sensitivity (87.8%) to detect Hb < 5 g/dl with a smaller reduction in specificity (53.3%; Youden index 41.1). Other combinations including respiratory signs or poor feeding resulted in lower accuracy.

conclusion Primary caregivers can recognize severe anaemia (Hb < 5 g/dl) in their children, but only with moderate accuracy. Soil eating should be considered as an additional indicator of severe anaemia. The effect of training caretakers to improve recognition of severe anaemia and care-seeking behaviour at the household level should be assessed in prospective community-based studies.