203,168 cases of children being underweight have been reported in the five top counties. [iStockphoto]

At least 45 per cent of deaths of children below the age of five in Kenya are caused by poor nutrition.

Kilifi, West Pokot, and Samburu are the top five counties with cases of stunted, malnourished children at 37, 34, and 31 per cent, respectively. Other counties with the highest cases include Meru and Kitui at 25 per cent.

In a report released by the Ministry of Health on Thursday, at least 203,168 cases of children being underweight have been reported in the five top counties.

The Ministry of Health attributed under-nutrition to a lack of food and knowledge on diet. A larger percentage of Kenyans not having enough time to cook meals is also contributing to undernutrition, especially in children. The Ministry is therefore adopting fortification of consumed meals to help reduce cases of malnutrition.

Leila Odhiambo, Deputy Health Division of Nutrition and Dietetics at the Ministry of Health, said a diet rich in micronutrients is key to the development and growth of a child. The key micronutrients include vitamin A, Zinc, Iodine, iron, folic acid, and vitamin B.

“Children with low uptake of micronutrients are likely to suffer from a range of diseases like anaemia, diarrhoea, malaria,” said Odhiambo.

Odhiambo encouraged feeding on five food types, namely vegetables, fruits, protein sourced from both animals and plants, vegetables, and carbohydrates.

She spoke during Kenya’s third National Food Fortification Summit held in Nairobi.

“Micronutrients are of great public importance, and failure to have them leads to mortalities, especially children below five years,” said Odhiambo. She added that the Ministry of Health, together with the Ministry of Agriculture and partners, is training food manufacturers on the importance of fortifying meals.

Fortification involves adding vitamins and minerals to highly consumed meals to increase their nutritional value.

According to the Kenya Foods, Drugs, and Chemical Substances Act, fortification requires that all salts for human consumption, packaged maize flour, wheat flour, fats, and oils be fortified with specific vitamins and minerals.

Fortification is encouraged in highly consumed meals that reach a larger population. “We encourage mass fortification of meals with salt, iodine, and oil, especially in highly consumed staples like wheat and maize flour,” said Odhiambo. In 2011, the National Micronutrients survey found a high level of anaemia in the population, particularly in pregnant women and those of reproductive age (15 to 49 years).

Anaemia affected 26 per cent of the population, including less than five years old.

“One in four children is anaemic. Diet is important for the development of children and also to help women have enough stores even during pregnancy,” said the head of nutrition.

She said the ministry is also promoting healthy eating, especially for children under five years old and at the population level.

Among the community initiatives at the baby level is exclusive and optimal breastfeeding.

Vitamin A supplements are also provided to children between six and 59 months, while folic acid supplementation is given during pregnancy and birth.

Prof. Daniel Sila, Principal of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), encouraged manufacturers to fortify foods for nutritional value.

The university has been conducting capacity building on fortification and analysis in partnership with KEBS and other industries for the past five years.

“Fortification of maize flour and salt has greatly reduced cases of goitre disease and malnutrition,” said Prof. Sila. The researcher added, “Everybody consumes ugali and salt. This is why we encourage food manufacturers to fortify the meals to reach a larger population”.

Although JKUAT has a laboratory for fortifying high-volume meals, there is newly developed technology to reach out to small-scale millers in villages, such as those operating posho mills.

The Sanku Project Healthy Children is among the entities reaching villages in the country to ensure that flour in posho mills is fortified.

“We are sensitising the public that they should not only have a meal, but it should be of high nutritional value. This is why we are reaching out to millers in the villages to have them fortify flour,” said Felistus Mutambi, manager of the Sanku Project Healthy Children.