Kenya has announced it will re-double efforts to control diarrheal diseases, one of the biggest killers of children under age five. Among the causes are unsafe water, as well as poor sanitation and hygiene.
Kenyan ministries, U.N. organizations and health-related agencies have joined forces to reverse a rising rate of diarrheal disease in the country. They unveiled what they call a renewed effort at a time when “global progress against the disease has stalled.”
One of the agencies involved is PATH. Alfred Ochola is its primary health care coordinator in Kenya for the project.
“The renewed effort is important because it has come out that diarrhea is increasing, as opposed to what it was in the 90s,” he says.
Ochola says one reason for the increase was a shift of resources to other major health threats.
“Many efforts had been diverted to another important cause – HIV/AIDS and malaria. And then the area that used to be the main focus for the control and prevention of diarrhea was kind of not given the right focus,” he says.
As a result, there is a renewed emphasis on what are known as O.R.T.C. – or oral rehydration therapy corners, where children can receive quick and easy treatments that could save their lives.
“What it is is a designated place in the hospital, particularly where children are seen, especially those with diarrhea. The importance of these corners is that if children do not pass through that corner they come in the late stages with complications with severe dehydration. And these are usually the children who now die from diarrhea, which should not be the case,” he says.
Oral rehydration therapy is usually an inexpensive solution of salt, sugar and water.
Meaning well, doing harm
Unfortunately, many mothers may be misinformed about how to treat the disease and may actually make matters worse.
Ochola says these children should be given more fluids than usual.
What’s more, he says, “They should be fed. But you might find that now mothers in the rural villages think the best way to handle the issue is now to stop the feeding, stop giving more fluids. And even worse, stop breastfeeding, which means now the children will be starved of the required fluids and food, which is necessary.
Most of the cases of diarrhea and infant mortality occur in western Kenya.
Boosting prevention efforts
Kenya is also stepping up its vaccination program against a leading cause of diarrhea, the rotavirus. With funding from the GAVI Alliance, PATH operates the Rotavirus Vaccine Program – a partnership that includes the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
It’s estimated up to two million children die every year around the world from diarrheal disease. It’s the third biggest killer of children under age five in Kenya, following malaria and pneumonia.
“Malaria is also closely linked to diarrhea. Most children, when they have an attack of malaria, they also have diarrhea. So when you have a combination of malaria and diarrhea, those children end up in the bigger circle of ending up with malnutrition. One of the complications of malnutrition is diarrhea,” he says.
The PATH health coordinator says there will also be greater efforts to raise awareness about the disease.
Ochola says the message is diarrhea can kill, but it can be prevented. And proper hygiene, safe water and sanitation can do that.
The renewed effort to control the disease includes various Kenyan ministries, PATH, UNICEF, Population Services International and the Micronutrient Initiative.