Integrated management of childhood illness (IMCI) strategy for children younger than five years of age

What is the aim of this review?

The aim of this Cochrane review is to assess the effects of programs that use the World Health Organization integrated management of childhood illness (IMCI) strategy. Cochrane researchers searched for all potentially relevant studies and found four studies that met review criteria.

Key messages

This review shows that use of the World Health Organization IMCI strategy may led to fewer deaths among children from birth to five years of age. Effects of IMCI on other issues, such as illness or quality of care, were mixed, and some evidence of this was of very low certainty. In the future, researchers should explore how the IMCI strategy can best be delivered.

What was studied in the review?

More than 7.5 million children globally die each year before reaching the age of five. Most are from poor communities and live in the poorest countries. These children are more likely than others to suffer from malnutrition and from infections such as neonatal sepsis, measles, diarrhoea, malaria, and pneumonia.

Effective strategies to prevent and treat sick children are available but do not reach them. One reason for this is that health care services are often too far away or too expensive. Health facilities in these settings often lack supplies and well-trained health care workers. In addition, ill children may have several health problems at the same time, and this can make diagnosis and treatment difficult for health care workers.

In the 1990s, the World Health Organization (WHO) developed a strategy called integrated management of childhood illness (IMCI) to address these problems. This strategy aims to prevent death and disease while improving the quality of care for ill children up to the age of five. It consists of three parts.

• Improving the skills of health care workers by providing training and guidelines.

• Improving how health care systems are organized and managed, including access to supplies.

• Visiting homes and communities to promote good child rearing practices and good nutrition, while encouraging parents to bring their children to a clinic when the children are ill.

The WHO encourages countries to adapt the IMCI strategy to their own national settings. Types of childhood illnesses prioritised and ways in which services are delivered may vary from country to country.

What are the main results of the review?

This Cochrane review included four studies assessing the effectiveness of the IMCI strategy. These studies were conducted in Tanzania, Bangladesh, and India. The IMCI strategy was used very differently across studies. For instance, the study from Tanzania implemented health care worker training and improved drug supply but did not include home visits or community activities; the study from Bangladesh added new health care workers while training existing health care workers; and the two Indian studies specifically targeted newborns as well as older children.

This review showed that use of IMCI:

• may lead to fewer deaths among children from birth to five years of age (low-certainty evidence);

• may have little or no effect on the number of children suffering from stunting (low-certainty evidence);

• probably has little or no effect on the number of children suffering from wasting (moderate-certainty evidence);

• probably has little or no effect on the number of children who receive measles vaccines; and

• may lead to mixed results on the number of parents seeking care for their child when he or she is ill.

We do not know whether IMCI has any effect on the way health care workers treat common illnesses because certainty of the evidence was assessed as very low.

We do not know whether IMCI has any effect on the number of mothers who exclusively breast feed their child, because certainty of the evidence was assessed as very low.

None of the included studies assessed the satisfaction of mothers and service users by using an IMCI strategy.

How up-to-date is this review?

Review authors searched for studies that had been published up to 30 June 2015.

Authors' conclusions: 

The mix of interventions examined in research studies evaluating the IMCI strategy varies, and some studies include specific inputs to improve neonatal health. Most studies were conducted in South Asia. Implementing the integrated management of childhood illness strategy may reduce child mortality, and packages that include interventions for the neonatal period may reduce infant mortality. IMCI may have little or no effect on nutritional status and probably has little or no effect on vaccine coverage. Maternal care seeking behavior may be more appropriate with IMCI, but study results have been mixed, providing evidence of very low certainty about whether IMCI has effects on adherence to exclusive breast feeding.

Read the full abstract...

More than 7.5 million children younger than age five living in low- and middle-income countries die every year. The World Health Organization (WHO) developed the integrated management of childhood illness (IMCI) strategy to reduce mortality and morbidity and to improve quality of care by improving the delivery of a variety of curative and preventive medical and behavioral interventions at health facilities, at home, and in the community.


To evaluate the effects of programs that implement the IMCI strategy in terms of death, nutritional status, quality of care, coverage with IMCI deliverables, and satisfaction of beneficiaries.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; 2015, Issue 3), including the Cochrane Effective Practice and Organisation of Care (EPOC) Group Specialised Register; MEDLINE; EMBASE, Ovid; the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), EbscoHost; the Latin American Caribbean Health Sciences Literature (LILACS), Virtual Health Library (VHL); the WHO Library & Information Networks for Knowledge Database (WHOLIS); the Science Citation Index and Social Sciences Citation Index, Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) Web of Science; Population Information Online (POPLINE); the WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (WHO ICTRP); and the Global Health, Ovid and Health Management, ProQuest database. We performed searches until 30 June 2015 and supplemented these by searching revised bibliographies and by contacting experts to identify ongoing and unpublished studies.

Selection criteria: 

We sought to include randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and controlled before-after (CBA) studies with at least two intervention and two control sites evaluating the generic IMCI strategy or its adaptation in children younger than age five, and including at minimum efforts to improve health care worker skills for case management. We excluded studies in which IMCI was accompanied by other interventions including conditional cash transfers, food supplementation, and employment. The comparison group received usual health services without provision of IMCI.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently screened searches, selected trials, and extracted, analysed and tabulated data. We used inverse variance for cluster trials and an intracluster co-efficient of 0.01 when adjustment had not been made in the primary study. We used the GRADE (Grades of Recommendation, Assessment, Development and Evaluation Working Group) approach to assess the certainty of evidence.

Main results: 

Two cluster-randomised trials (India and Bangladesh) and two controlled before-after studies (Tanzania and India) met our inclusion criteria. Strategies included training of health care staff, management strengthening of health care systems (all four studies), and home visiting (two studies). The two studies from India included care packages targeting the neonatal period.

One trial in Bangladesh estimated that child mortality may be 13% lower with IMCI, but the confidence interval (CI) included no effect (risk ratio (RR) 0.87, 95% CI 0.68 to 1.10; 5090 participants; low-certainty evidence). One CBA study in Tanzania gave almost identical estimates (RR 0.87, 95% CI 0.72 to 1.05; 1932 participants).

One trial in India examined infant and neonatal mortality by implementing the integrated management of neonatal and childhood illness (IMNCI) strategy including post-natal home visits. Neonatal and infant mortality may be lower in the IMNCI group compared with the control group (infant mortality hazard ratio (HR) 0.85, 95% CI 0.77 to 0.94; neonatal mortality HR 0.91, 95% CI 0.80 to 1.03; one trial, 60,480 participants; low-certainty evidence).

We estimated the effect of IMCI on any mortality measured by combining infant and child mortality in the one IMCI and the one IMNCI trial. Mortality may be reduced by IMCI (RR 0.85, 95% CI 0.78 to 0.93; two trials, 65,570 participants; low-certainty evidence).

Two trials (India, Bangladesh) evaluated nutritional status and noted that there may be little or no effect on stunting (RR 0.94, 95% CI 0.84 to 1.06; 5242 participants, two trials; low-certainty evidence) and there is probably little or no effect on wasting (RR 1.04, 95% CI 0.87 to 1.25; two trials, 4288 participants; moderate-certainty evidence).The Tanzania CBA study showed similar results.

Investigators measured quality of care by observing prescribing for common illnesses at health facilities (727 observations, two studies; very low-certainty evidence) and by observing prescribing by lay health care workers (1051 observations, three studies; very low-certainty evidence). We could not confirm a consistent effect on prescribing at health facilities or by lay health care workers, as certainty of the evidence was very low.

For coverage of IMCI deliverables, we examined vaccine and vitamin A coverage, appropriate care seeking, and exclusive breast feeding. Two trials (India, Bangladesh) estimated vaccine coverage for measles and reported that there is probably little or no effect on measles vaccine coverage (RR 0.92, 95% CI 0.80 to 1.05; two trials, 4895 participants; moderate-certainty evidence), with similar effects seen in the Tanzania CBA study. Two studies measured the third dose of diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus vaccine; and two measured vitamin A coverage, all providing little or no evidence of increased coverage with IMCI.

Four studies (2 from India, and 1 each from Tanzania and Bangladesh) reported appropriate care seeking and derived information from careful questioning of mothers about recent illness. Some studies on effects of IMCI may report better care seeking behavior, but others do not report this.

All four studies recorded maternal responses on exclusive breast feeding. They provided mixed results and very low-certainty evidence. Therefore, we do not know whether IMCI impacts exclusive breast feeding.

No studies reported on the satisfaction of mothers and service users.