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Kenya: Malnutrition levels in northeast stubbornly high

A mother and her babies who are recovering from malnutrition at a therapeutic feeding centre in Mandera town, Kenya. Photo: John Nyaga/IRIN.[NAIROBI] Malnutrition levels in pastoralist districts of northeastern Kenya have remained high, despite recent rains that boosted livestock productivity, the mainstay of the local economy, officials said.

"There could have been improvements in the nutrition situation for individuals, but it will be difficult to see an impact at population level, given the various factors that affect nutrition," said the World Food Programme (WFP) in Kenya.

The Ministry of Health and its partners recently found Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) levels above the UN World Health Organization's 15 percent emergency threshold in Mandera Central Districts, Wajir South and Wajir East. Mandera West recorded GAM rates above 25 percent.

"Due to the high illiteracy levels that characterize this region, most people, especially women, [do not] ensure that children receive a balanced diet. This makes malnutrition a [common] occurrence," the ActionAid Kenya northeast region coordinator, Enrico Eminae, told IRIN.

This view was echoed by the Kenya Food Security Outlook for August report: "Improvements in household food security have not translated into a decisive reduction in rates of child malnutrition in the northeastern districts."

Eminae called for alternative income sources and a change in eating habits. "To generate income, milk, beans, green-grams and eggs are sold to buy maize, wheat flour and rice. In the process all nutritious food is sold to buy and consume only starch," he said. "Most people in this region prefer foods that can be prepared with the least effort, time and water. These are mainly starches, [such as] corn flour, rice, spaghetti and wheat flour."

Because livestock numbers have gone down, the pastoralists no longer have the milk, meat and blood that used to constitute their diet. Health facilities are also few and far between. Water remains scarce and migrating herds mean children are left without access to milk.

"The biggest problem in this region is continued poor development, which is best seen in the lack of and deterioration of infrastructure and services," noted Benoit Collin, head of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Disaster Risk Reduction programme. "One approach to the complex problem in this region is to increase availability and access to natural resources, especially water."

According to WFP Kenya, disease "and malnutrition have a synergy, such that an increase in one will also lead to an increase in the other".

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