Maternal and infant mortality rates in Kenya are high. In Nairobi in particular, neonatal deaths occur more than anywhere else in the country. The challenges are widespread - ranging from understaffed hospitals and inadequate medical resources, to maternal health issues and lack of awareness by mothers regarding proper hygiene and how to care for their babies.
But the challenge is not intractable. It can be alleviated. The Big Four Agenda includes universal healthcare for all, which is necessary for any economically developed nation. Even Kenyan citizens without financial means should be attended to by medical professionals.
Under the umbrella of universal healthcare, it is vital to focus on mothers and newborns. Good health begins at birth, and the strength of an infant during his or her first months of life oftentimes accompanies them throughout life. First Lady Margaret Kenyatta launched the Beyond Zero initiative, which aims to “ensure all Kenyan mothers deliver safely, their children are born healthy, remain healthy and HIV free”.
Now, it is not unusual for a baby to be born prematurely. In those cases, breast milk provides the infant with key nutrients needed for recovery and growth. But some mothers, due to health or other reasons, are unable to breastfeed their babies. Some 13,300 children aged five or younger die annually in Kenya due to premature births.
That’s why it was important to establish a human milk bank in Kenya. Two already exist in Africa - in South Africa and Cape Verde - with the third one recently launched at Nairobi’s Pumwani Maternity Hospital. Basing it on South Africa’s model, which has demonstrated proven success thus far, the Ministry of Health teamed up with Kenya-based African Population and Health Research Centre to establish a centre at Pumwani. Between 15 and 20 births each day at Pumwani are premature.
While breast milk from donors does not carry all nutritional benefits as the mother’s milk, it is still more nutritious than formula. It helps with the infant’s central nervous system development, and protects babies against bacterial infections of the intestines and bowel.
The milk bank, therefore, collects milk from donor mothers - who are recruited in the maternity ward - and then stores, pasteurises, and distributes it. But it is not as easy as it seems. There are a few challenges, and Kenyans must pull together to overcome them.
For example, milk banks face social and cultural acceptance on behalf of the donating and receiving mothers. Some might believe that it is stigmatised, or religious attitudes could prevent sharing the milk.
However, as has already been shown across 40 other countries, milk banks are an extraordinary way to ensure the nutritional needs of a newborn infant who otherwise would not have the same access as other newborns. This would place him in an unequal situation from his first moments of life.
While milk is closely tested for contamination before its distribution, there exists the possibility that scaling up too fast might accidentally hinder the ability to track and prevent disease. Nonetheless, it is important that Kenyans be patient and supportive of all innovative health initiatives that have proven successful around the world.
Furthermore, there simply is not a lot available since the milk is gathered on a voluntary donor basis. At Pumwani, mothers who have ability to share their milk do so from the goodness of their hearts, and in so doing are able to provide one of the greatest gifts of all: Good health.
Development depends on everyone coming together to support the community.
That includes our support of the milk bank pilot launch, as well as any Linda Mama programme that works towards improving maternal healthcare. We might not be such a new nation anymore, but we are regenerated each time a newborn Kenyan breathes his or her first breath of life.
- The writer is a nurse in Nairobi.
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