Growing wealth in Kajiado, one of Kenya’s fastest urbanising counties, has also triggered runaway unhealthy lifestyles.
Rates of hypertension and blood sugar, both precursors to heart diseases and diabetes, research shows, are well above the national average.
Researchers from the Kyoto University of Japan, the African Population and Health Research Centre, Nairobi, National Taiwan University, and the University of Eldoret, say events in Kajiado are a reflection of growing urbanisation in Kenya.
The team had investigated the prevalence of elevated blood pressure, blood glucose and weight status in Kajiado County, a typical rapidly urbanising area.
The study appearing in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health last month (September) had picked on Kajiado for its dramatic change from a rural to suburban county.
Kajiado is one of the four counties within the Nairobi Metropolitan area, making it a popular location for expanding upper and middle-class settlements, industries and businesses.
“The county boasts of several major manufacturing factories and natural resources extractors, large-scale floriculture and horticulture and a vibrant real estate sector,” says the study.
The team recruited 593 adult men and women from all over rural and urban Kajiado and tested them for three indicators for heart disease and diabetes.
The participants, 221 men and 372 women aged 25-64, were tested for blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol.
High salt in the urine
They were also assessed for weight and obesity. A fifth but rare test was carried out to determine the salt ratio in their urine.
This latter test, the authors explain, was taken because domestic water in Kajiado is mainly salty due to the underlying soda volcanic rock.
Seventy per cent of the participants, the report says, had urinary salt ratio way above the recommended safety levels.
This, the team says, is of concern and advice for practical ways to desalinate water for domestic use in Kajiado to avoid possible health problems. In 2019, the county government banned the sale of salty water for domestic use.
Hypertensive and obese dwellers
But back to the main problem, more than a quarter of the study participants, or 26.2 per cent, were hypertensive. This was higher than the national average with more men than women exhibiting high blood pressure.
On the other hand, the prevalence of elevated blood sugar, a red flag for diabetes, was 17.6 per cent and significantly higher in women than men.
“The prevalence of diabetes of 7.7 per cent was higher than the national average of 2.4 per cent, suggesting higher risk of non-communicable diseases in Kajiado,” says the study.
Overweight and obesity was also high; almost 40 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women had weight problems. This is against a national prevalence of 34 per cent in males and 43 per cent in females.
To find out why Kajiado residents are facing such serious risks of lifestyle diseases, the researchers investigated their dietary habits.
They found their dietary habits were not much different from in other urbanising areas in the country, with in fact low consumption of sugary foods and drinks.
But three things stood out; extremely low intake of fruits and vegetables, use of salty domestic water and high alcohol intake among young men.
“Over half of the participants in our study population did not consume vegetables daily and over 70 per cent did not consume fruits daily as recommended.”
This is curious, considering Kajiado has become a major greenhouse-vegetable and fruits producing area though with little available in local markets.
To address the issue, the authors suggest county government require companies producing fruit and vegetables in greenhouses make a portion of them available to the local market.
Secondly, the researchers found high alcohol and tobacco consumption among younger men. “Of greater concern is that half of the current drinkers were younger than 35 years.”
This, the study says, was contrary to what was found in rural areas of western Kenya where drinking was more prevalent among older men (45–54 years).
Although over 90 per cent of study participants were involved in physical activity such as work, walking and cycling, only 39 per cent engaged in adequate physical activity.
“Ethnicity-wise, the Kikuyu and other ethnic groups were at higher odds of elevated blood pressure compared to the Maasai women,” says the study.
This, researchers suggest, is because many local Maasai women still keep some of their traditional ways of life that are preventive of elevated blood pressure.
For unexplained reasons, the authors found people in self-employment were at higher risk of being hypertensive than those in formal employment.
To remain healthy, Kajiado residents are advised to eat more fruits and vegetables, engage in more physical activities, young men should cut on alcohol and tobacco and know their health status.
That, experts suggest, may be the only way for them to enjoy their growing wealth for a long, healthy and prosperous life.