Kenya

Drought threatens child health and survival in northern Kenya

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By Gary Stryker

TURKANA, Kenya, 31 October 2008 - In northern Kenya, Turkana province is on the brink of disaster. There's been no rain for months, the forecast is grim and thousands of children are at risk.

Martha is a mother of six with her seventh on the way. In her small grass shelter, there's no food in the family store. Last night, she says, she borrowed some maize from a neighbor to feed her children, but this morning they went to school hungry.

She once had 30 goats in her corral, but all of them have died from a disease that has killed 2 million goats in the region.

Some agencies are buying diseased or weak goats for slaughter, and providing cash for families to replace their livestock or buy much-needed food. Food prices have skyrocketed here - even higher than elsewhere in Kenya.

Back from the edge of starvation

The combined tragedy of drought, disease, and market forces is hitting the youngest the hardest.

Martha's youngest child, Gladys, is malnourished - one of 13,000 children under five who are treated at relief centres like the one set up under a spreading tree at Nadapal village, 10 km from the town of Lodwar.

Among dozens of other children there on a hot afternoon, ten month-old Lokali gets checked by a health worker and is given a week's supply of Plumpy'nut, a therapeutic food that can bring children back from the edge of starvation.

"Because the general food situation is so serious," said UNICEF Kenya Chief of Communication Sara Cameron, "when the children go back home with Plumpy'nut or with supplementary food, they're sharing it out with many other family members. And, of course, the children aren't recovering as fast as they should."

Feeding and treatment centres

Without enough food to go around, the weakest children easily fall prey to disease. Many arrive each day at Lodwar Hospital, suffering from tuberculosis, pneumonia or diarrhoea.

The good news is that most children at the hospital are now doing well. Even though the number of children at risk is rising, so is the number whose lives are being saved.

Kenya's Government knows how to cope with emergencies. Feeding and treatment centres are often overwhelmed, but they can and do hold hunger at bay if the resources they need are available at the right time.

The situation in Turkana is critical, and longer-term solutions are needed. Yet for children like Gladys, getting the help she needs now rather than later is definitely best for her, for her family, and for everyone.