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Malnutrition on the rise in Kilifi as drought bites

Fatma Nzai with her nine months old daughter after a routine clinic visit at Kinarani Dispensary in Kaloleni.

After a three-hour drive on the dusty road from Kilifi to Kinarani dispensary in Kaloleni, the cry of babies brings life to the quiet health facility.

Patients have come from far for check-ups. A quick look shows most of the patients are children under the age of two.

Lilian Nzomo, a nutritionist working in Kaloleni Sub-county is on duty at the dispensary. Nzomo says almost 90 per cent of the children brought in suffer from malnutrition diseases.

“Most of the children brought in here are severely emaciated. They weigh less than a newborn baby, mostly suffering from acute malnutrition due to lack of proper feeding.

“Some of their mothers cannot produce enough milk due to the hard economic challenges imposed by the ongoing drought in the area,” says Nzomo.

According to Nzomo, babies are forced to eat unsweetened maize-meal (porridge) daily, yet such a diet is unfit for children in that critical age.

Fatuma, an 18-year-old mother has come to the clinic for a routine check-up of her nine-month-old daughter. The baby was born weighing two kilograms. Nine months later, she weighs only five kilograms.

“For the past two months, my daughter’s weight has been declining because of lack of food and milk. I often sleep on an empty stomach and my breasts cannot produce enough milk,’’ says Fatuma.

Rehema’s 11-month-old son weighs six kilograms.

“My child has been sick on and off, and when I took him to the hospital he was diagnosed with pellagra, a disease linked to over-dependence on maize as a staple food,” she says.

Pellagra is characterized by loss of appetite, weakness, dermatitis, diarrhoea, inflamed mucous membrane and mental confusion.

The plight of these two babies is a highlight of the many cases of food and nutrition challenges taking a devastating effect on children in Kilifi County.

About 70 per cent of households in Kilifi county face food insecurity. Health officials say the danger with this is the children might starve, and those who survive to live with shortcomings such as slower brain development and low immunity. According to the Kilifi county malnutrition survey conducted in August 2021, nearly one in two children aged two and below are suffering from malnutrition, while 65 per cent of children aged five are not feeding enough to thrive.

“Last year’s survey showed that more than 15,000 children under the age of two suffer from acute malnutrition, and the saddest part is that those who have come to our facilities are only 300,” says Dr Nyawa Benzadze, a nutritionist at Kilifi County Referral Hospital.

Dr. Nyawa says the crisis is expected to worsen, especially in Ganze, Kaloleni and Magarini sub-counties if urgent steps are not taken to prevent the situation.

Kilifi is experiencing one of the worst droughts in the last two years. Over 200,000 people are food insecure. According to Kilifi County executive member for health, Charles Dadu, the county is roping in interventions to salvage the situation.

“We are in the process of scaling up interventions but that needs more resources and outreach. 

“We need to double our efforts to curb this catastrophic rise in hunger but we cannot do it without significant funding resources and buy-in from partners,” Dadu said during a recent interview with The Standard.

According to a recent report by the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) more than 1.14 million people are food insecure in coastal regions, including Lamu, Kwale and Tana River counties.

Other areas affected by drought are Garissa, Mandera, Marsabit, Isiolo and Wajir counties.