Is Middle-Upper Arm Circumference "normally" distributed? Secondary data analysis of 852 nutrition surveys

Severine Frison, Francesco Checchi, Marko Kerac, Jennifer Nicholas
Emerging Themes in Epidemiology 2016, 13: 7

BACKGROUND: Wasting is a major public health issue throughout the developing world. Out of the 6.9 million estimated deaths among children under five annually, over 800,000 deaths (11.6 %) are attributed to wasting. Wasting is quantified as low Weight-For-Height (WFH) and/or low Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) (since 2005). Many statistical procedures are based on the assumption that the data used are normally distributed. Analyses have been conducted on the distribution of WFH but there are no equivalent studies on the distribution of MUAC.

METHODS: This secondary data analysis assesses the normality of the MUAC distributions of 852 nutrition cross-sectional survey datasets of children from 6 to 59 months old and examines different approaches to normalise "non-normal" distributions.

RESULTS: The distribution of MUAC showed no departure from a normal distribution in 319 (37.7 %) distributions using the Shapiro-Wilk test. Out of the 533 surveys showing departure from a normal distribution, 183 (34.3 %) were skewed (D'Agostino test) and 196 (36.8 %) had a kurtosis different to the one observed in the normal distribution (Anscombe-Glynn test). Testing for normality can be sensitive to data quality, design effect and sample size. Out of the 533 surveys showing departure from a normal distribution, 294 (55.2 %) showed high digit preference, 164 (30.8 %) had a large design effect, and 204 (38.3 %) a large sample size. Spline and LOESS smoothing techniques were explored and both techniques work well. After Spline smoothing, 56.7 % of the MUAC distributions showing departure from normality were "normalised" and 59.7 % after LOESS. Box-Cox power transformation had similar results on distributions showing departure from normality with 57 % of distributions approximating "normal" after transformation. Applying Box-Cox transformation after Spline or Loess smoothing techniques increased that proportion to 82.4 and 82.7 % respectively.

CONCLUSION: This suggests that statistical approaches relying on the normal distribution assumption can be successfully applied to MUAC. In light of this promising finding, further research is ongoing to evaluate the performance of a normal distribution based approach to estimating the prevalence of wasting using MUAC.

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