In-depth: Another Kenya - The humanitarian cost of under-development

KENYA: Malnutrition crisis in northwest

A child is weighed at a feeding centre in Turkana: Malnutrition rates in children under five in the Turkana region have risen above the emergency threshold (file photo)
NAIROBI, 16 July 2009 (IRIN) - Poor rains have heightened food insecurity in Kenya's northwestern region of Turkana, where malnutrition rates in children under five have risen above the emergency threshold, according to humanitarian officials.

"Poor rains in April, May and June worsened food insecurity in the region, where 74 percent of the population [estimated at 550,000] already depends on food aid," Vincent Kahi, the health coordinator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), said on 15 July at a press briefing in Nairobi.

He said at least 50 percent of child deaths in the region were due to malnutrition or had malnutrition as an underlying cause of death.

Turkana is a mostly arid region, with little agriculture. Most of the population depends on livestock, but the viability of pastoralism is being undermined by recurrent and increasingly unpredictable droughts and armed conflict with groups from neighbouring regions or countries.

Across the country, "food security prospects for the coming months are dismal", according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"In [the north-central] Samburu district, the percentage of children under-five considered at risk of malnutrition increased to 29.4 from 21.8 last month. In Moyale [in the northeast], the nutrition status of children below five years declined, with the percentage of children rated at risk of malnutrition rising to 35 percent from 30.6 in April," OCHA warned in a weekly bulletin.

"The decline was attributed to higher food prices and reduced availability of food," it added.

"Given the very poor outcomes of the long rains, the situation is expected to seriously deteriorate, especially in districts receiving no or limited support, if nutrition interventions do not maintain higher levels of coverage in some districts e.g. Kajiado, Kinango, Marsabit, Wajir, Turkana, West Pokot, and do not scale-up in others i.e. Isiolo, Samburu, Baringo," the report warned.

Kahi said preliminary findings of an inter-agency nutrition survey conducted in May 2009 in the larger Turkana area showed most of the districts with over 20 percent global acute malnutrition (GAM). The World Health Organization (WHO) emergency threshold is 15 percent. Acute malnutrition exposes a child to high levels of mortality and disease.


Photo: OCHA VMU
He said the northwest region of Turkana had the highest GAM, at 28.2 percent.

"What this means is that there is an emergency in Turkana; food insecurity is the main issue," Kahi said. "Sustainable livelihood programming is needed."

Besides malnutrition, Kahi said, pneumonia, malaria and diarrhoea were the three main diseases responsible for deaths among under-fives in Turkana.

He said IRC, through its partners, was providing community-based treatment for these diseases across the larger Turkana area.

IRC also has nutrition and supplementary feeding programmes targeting severely malnourished children in parts of the Turkana region.

Peter Smerdon, a senior public affairs officer for the UN World Food Programme, told IRIN an ongoing inter-agency assessment of the just-ended long rains would determine the numbers in need of food aid in arid and semi-arid areas such as Turkana, Samburu and Laikipia.

"Based on a recent visit to some of these areas, the situation appears rather alarming; at least 2.5 million people [countrywide] were found to be in need of food aid following the short rains assessment. We expect the number to go up after the long rains assessment because the rains were much below normal in many areas," Smerdon said.

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