The biggest killer of our babies and young children today is the smoke caused by cooking with firewood and charcoal inside our homes.
However, we are currently chasing goals to reduce childhood morbidity and mortality as if we genuinely did not have access to data showing what is killing our under-fives.
The new government report, the Kenya Household Cooking Sector Study, which was launched at the Clean Cooking Forum this November, indicates that more than 50 Kenyans die every day from cooking using traditional fuels.
The study was jointly commissioned by the Clean Cooking Association of Kenya and the Kenya Ministry of Energy and supported by the Netherlands Development Organisation and the Netherlands Enterprise Agency.
It adds to a growing body of research showing that indoor air pollution caused by traditional cooking fuels is driving the respiratory morbidity and mortality of an estimated 21,600 Kenyans a year, with 40 per cent being young children and infants.
Continuous exposure to the pollutants released by these fuels is equivalent to smoking 400 cigarettes an hour, with young children particularly susceptible to the consequent lung damage.
Yet, the government of Kenya spends millions each year tackling preventable diseases while doing little to address the killing going on in Kenyan kitchens - with around 90 per cent of rural households still relying on firewood for cooking and heating, while more than 80 per cent of urban households continue to use charcoal.
To whit, of the Sh18.3 billion allocated to the Ministry of Health towards the Big Four Agenda of Universal Healthcare Coverage, Sh2.17 billion was for the preventive Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH) programme to reduce morbidity and mortality due to preventable causes.
Such preventable, non-communicable diseases account for 50 per cent of hospital admissions and 55 per cent of hospital deaths. Yet not one shilling was spent in stopping home cooking with smoking fuels, despite it being the single biggest cause of the death pile-up.
Indeed, the Health ministry was notably absent from the Clean Cooking Forum 2019 itself, which brought together over 550 people from 50 countries. Yet, according to the Global Burden of Disease 2010 report, four million people die prematurely each year in Sub-Saharan Africa from illness attributable directly and indirectly to indoor air pollution due to solid fuel.
Of these deaths, 500,000 are caused by the effects of secondhand cooking smoke that wafts up the chimney and out the doors, and another 500,000 is attributed to child pneumonia.
A 2014 study in Ghana on pregnant women even found that the use of clean fuel before the third trimester of pregnancy led to a significant increase in average birth weight, and a reduction in severe pneumonia in children within the first year of life.
As it is, the government is trying in other arms of executive management to move the nation to clean fuels, and notably to LPG for these reasons.
But Kenya’s LPG consumption still stands at just two kilos per capita, whereas consumption in Ghana, South Africa, and Senegal is running at five, six and 10 kilos per person.
The country’s health system is nowhere in addressing the cooking fuel scourge.
A key factor in this remains the lack of understanding by many mothers that indoor cooking with solid fuels is a killer, putting their families and children at the highest possible risk. Many literally have no idea of the danger.
While primary healthcare budgets are spent on health appointments and tests, simply informing the public that indoor fires kill could go a long way in saving our newborns and young children from respiratory destruction.
Ms Manyara is the General Manager, Petroleum Institute of East Africa
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