Mothers gather with their children in the village of Lokomarinyang, in Turkana, northern Kenya. They’re here to receive life-saving medical and nutritional treatment from the Kenya Red Cross’ mobile health team.
Women and children have been hit particularly hard by the food crisis in this part of Kenya. The Turkana people are nomadic herders, and during droughts when water and pasture are difficult to find, men will move with the animals and leave women, children and the elderly behind.
As they rely on the animals’ milk for nutrition, though, this leaves the most vulnerable without a steady food source. The result is shocking – a survey in May 2011 found that 37 per cent of children under five in North Turkana are acutely malnourished. The World Health Organisation’s threshold for an emergency is 15 per cent.
Boosting nutrition and immunity
Kenya Red Cross nutrition team leader Irene Njoki Njiru, 23, from Eastern Province, explains how they determine whether a child is malnourished. “We take their weight and measure their upper arm circumference. If they’re under five and their upper arm is 5.5-11.4 cm, they’re severely malnourished. If it’s 11.5-12.4 cm, they’re moderately malnourished. If it’s at least 12.5 cm, they’re normal.
“For lactating mothers and pregnant women, an upper arm measurement of below 21 cm means she’s malnourished. We measure the left arm, since their right is usually more active and the left will waste away quicker.
“We give the children vitamin A supplements to boost their immunity because a malnourished child is more vulnerable, especially to oedema (swelling), pneumonia and diarrhoea and vomiting. When we get these cases, we refer them to the stabilisation centre at Kaikor.”
Protecting food for children
The team travels around an area serving 15-20,000 people. Turkana is semi-desert, with extreme weather and very rough roads. Every day, the team faces many logistical challenges, but when asked about the greatest challenge, Irene’s first thought is of the children.
“The biggest challenge,” she says, “is that when I give a child Unimix – a nutritious food supplement – it’s not his alone. His family will share it, so he won’t get better. So we link the family to the general food distribution run by Oxfam and they get maize, pulses and oil – then we know the child’s food will be safe.
“When we began working here two months ago, there were lots of cases. Lots. We’re getting there now, though. The women and children are getting better.”
The mobile health programme is expected to continue at least until the end of March 2012.
Read more about the East Africa Food Crisis Appeal