Kenya: Severe drought fuels malnutrition, reduces hospital-delivery births in Turkana County

Health workers attend to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers at an outreach visit supported by UNFPA in Loima Sub-county.
© UNFPA/Luis Tato
Health workers attend to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers at an outreach visit supported by UNFPA in Loima Sub-county.

Kenya: Severe drought fuels malnutrition, reduces hospital-delivery births in Turkana County

Women

Following four successive failed rainy seasons, Kenya is amid the worst drought in 40 years, the UN’s women’s health agency, UNFPA, said on Tuesday, shining a light on 134,000 pregnant or breastfeeding women who are reported to be acutely malnourished and in need of treatment.

“I have never experienced a drought as bad as this in my life”, 28-year-old Akure Ewar told UNFPA.

At seven months pregnant, she complains that she is hungry and often feels dizzy when going about her day.

“The dry seasons have been progressively getting worse over the last three years, but our animals kept us going with milk and meat. This time, they have all perished and left us with nothing.”

Unattended births

Forced to migrate in search of water, food and pasture, many are unable to access health facilities for critical maternal health care.

“Before the drought, our health facilities would record an average of 411 deliveries in a month, indicating a skilled birth attendance rate of 70 per cent”, explained Maiyo Elphas, a Loima Sub-county public health officer.

“In November 2022, the number was down to 100 births recorded, which represents a very low rate of 24.6 per cent.”

Women have been disproportionately affected by the drought in Kenya, which has increased their vulnerability to violence and drastically reduced their access to health centres.
UNFPA Kenya
Women have been disproportionately affected by the drought in Kenya, which has increased their vulnerability to violence and drastically reduced their access to health centres.

'Fend for myslef'

“Every woman, rich or poor, has a 15 per cent risk for complications around the time of delivery, but almost no maternal deaths occur in developed regions”, according to the World Health Organization , explaining the importance of skilled birth attendance, meaning a childbirth assisted by a trained health professional, such as a doctor, nurse or midwife.

The rate of skilled birth attendance was already low in Kenya, a country with a high maternal death rate of 342 per 100,000 live births but the situation is worsening dramatically for those affected by drought.

In Lochorepetet Village, 30-year-old Losikiria Kuya, who is pregnant with her fourth child often goes for days without food is frequently unable to trek the 10 kilometers to the nearest health center for her ante-natal check-ups.

“Usually when it is time to deliver, my husband will take me to the center on a motorbike, but with him often gone in search of pasture, I have to be ready to fend for myself, if need be”, she said.

Rural women

The drought crisis is not only affecting women’s access to essential maternal health care; it is causing serious undernutrition among pregnant women, escalating risks to them and their future babies.

In addition to affecting the development of a fetus, undernutrition also causes a number of problems for pregnant women, including higher risk of sepsis and death.

A mother carries her child past the carcasses of livestock that died as a result of a severe drought in Marsabit, Kenya.
© UNICEF/Oloo
A mother carries her child past the carcasses of livestock that died as a result of a severe drought in Marsabit, Kenya.

UNFPA and partners are providing life-saving sexual and reproductive health services that bring services closer to those who need them most.

“During the drought season, we have been carrying out health outreach activities every two weeks where we offer ante-natal and postnatal services, family planning, nutrition and immunization services to the community” Nurse Lobei Dedan Njagi told UNFPA.

During each visit, an estimated 15 to 20 pregnant women receive care.

Worries on the horizon

The severity and exceptional duration of the drought is worsening an already dire situation in Turkana County, which was already reeling from locust infestations and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Projections indicate a possible sixth consecutive poor rainy season from March to May, placing even more women and girls at risk.

UNFPA is appealing for $113.7 to fund its Response Plan for the Horn of Africa Drought Crisis 2022-2023 to support the escalating needs of women and girls.

A UNICEF worker at Sopel Primary School in Turkana County, Kenya. helps children to understand the challenges being posed by the ongoing drought crisis.
© UNICEF/Translieu/Nyaberi
A UNICEF worker at Sopel Primary School in Turkana County, Kenya. helps children to understand the challenges being posed by the ongoing drought crisis.