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To construct growth curves for mid-upper-arm circumference (MUAC)-for-age z score for 5-19 year olds that accord with the World Health Organization growth standards, and to evaluate their discriminatory performance for subsequent mortality.Growth curve construction and longitudinal cohort study.United States and international growth data, and cohorts in Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.The Health Examination Survey (HES)/National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) US population datasets (age 5-25 years), which were used to construct the 2007 WHO growth reference for body mass index in this age group, were merged with an imputed dataset matching the distribution of the WHO 2006 growth standards age 2-6 years. Validation data were from 685 HIV infected children aged 5-17 years participating in the Antiretroviral Research for Watoto (ARROW) trial in Uganda and Zimbabwe; and 1741 children aged 5-13 years discharged from a rural Kenyan hospital (3.8% HIV infected). Both cohorts were followed-up for survival during one year.Concordance with WHO 2006 growth standards at age 60 months and survival during one year according to MUAC-for-age and body mass index-for-age z scores.The new growth curves transitioned smoothly with WHO growth standards at age 5 years. MUAC-for-age z scores of −2 to −3 and less than−3, compared with −2 or more, was associated with hazard ratios for death within one year of 3.63 (95% confidence interval 0.90 to 14.7; P=0.07) and 11.1 (3.40 to 36.0; P<0.001), respectively, among ARROW trial participants; and 2.22 (1.01 to 4.9; P=0.04) and 5.15 (2.49 to 10.7; P<0.001), respectively, among Kenyan children after discharge from hospital. The AUCs for MUAC-for-age and body mass index-for-age z scores for discriminating subsequent mortality were 0.81 (95% confidence interval 0.70 to 0.92) and 0.75 (0.63 to 0.86) in the ARROW trial (absolute difference 0.06, 95% confidence interval −0.032 to 0.16; P=0.2) and 0.73 (0.65 to 0.80) and 0.58 (0.49 to 0.67), respectively, in Kenya (absolute difference in AUC 0.15, 0.07 to 0.23; P=0.0002).The MUAC-for-age z score is at least as effective as the body mass index-for-age z score for assessing mortality risks associated with undernutrition among African school aged children and adolescents. MUAC can provide simplified screening and diagnosis within nutrition and HIV programmes, and in research.