Burden of eating disorders in 5-13-year-old children in Australia

Sloan Madden*, Anne Morris, Yvonne A. Zurynski, Michael Kohn, Elizabeth J. Elliot

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

126 Citations (Scopus)


Objective: To collect nationally representative epidemiological data on early-onset eating disorders (EOEDs) in children. Design: Prospective, active surveillance using the Australian Paediatric Surveillance Unit with key informant design. Setting: Child health specialists in Australia (July 2002 to June 2005). Patients: Incident cases of EOEDs in children aged 5-13 years. Main outcome measures: Disease rates, demographic characteristics, clinical features and complications, hospitalisation, psychological comorbidity, and concordance of clinical features with Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV) criteria. Results: We identified 101 children aged 5-13 years with EOEDs (median age, 12.2 years; range, 5.5-13.9 years), of whom one in four were boys. Most were hospitalised (78%), and the mean duration of hospitalisation was 24.7 days (range, 1-75 days). More than 70% of inpatients were admitted to specialised eating disorder units in paediatric teaching hospitals. Among inpatients, 37% met DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa; although 61% had life-threatening complications of malnutrition, only 51% met weight criteria. Psychological symptoms were similar to those in adults with anorexia nervosa: 67% of inpatients met both psychological diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa (fear of weight gain/fatness and misperception of body shape). Of 19 postmenarchal girls, 18 had secondary amenorrhoea. Nasogastric feeding was used in 58% of inpatients, and 34% received psychotropic medications. Conclusions: This is the first prospective national study of EOEDs. It demonstrates the limitations of applying DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa to young children; the high proportion of boys affected by EOEDs; and the significant psychological comorbidity and high frequency of hospitalisation associated with EOEDs. Potentially life-threatening medical complications are common at presentation, suggesting possible missed diagnoses and a need for education of health professionals. The study underlines the severity of EOEDs and the need for joint medical and psychiatric specialist management.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)410-414
Number of pages5
JournalMedical Journal of Australia
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 20 Apr 2009
Externally publishedYes

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