Nutritional Crisis Now Acute: Malnutrition Spikes in Northern Kenya

International NGOs issue joint statement as malnutrition rates top 30% in Kenya's north

International humanitarian organizations Action Against Hunger | ACF International, Islamic Relief (IR), and Save the Children (SC-UK) have issued a joint appeal for urgent action to contain and reverse the alarming rates of acute malnutrition uncovered in Kenya’s northeastern province. Independent annual surveys carried out in the greater Mandera District (January-March 2009) document rates of global acute malnutrition at 30% on average—twice the World Health Organization’s emergency threshold of 15%—while 5% of the region’s children are faced with severe acute malnutrition, a clear indication of a serious nutritional crisis.

These independent findings provide a comprehensive glimpse into the extent of the crisis, detailing significant increases in admissions to therapeutic nutrition programs, widespread water and food insecurity, and an increased need for external assistance. “What we’re seeing is extremely troubling: water scarcity has driven livestock out of the region, creating shortages of milk and undermining the health of infants and children,” according to Sophie Bruas, Country Director for Action Against Hunger. “Immediate assistance is needed as these communities are barely coping.”

Underlying Causes

The growth in acute malnutrition has had multiple causes. Conditions have grown harsher after the failure of three consecutive rainy seasons—beginning in 2006—imposing long, dry seasons on communities, animals, and crops. Coupled with rising food prices, widespread water scarcity, poor hygiene and sanitation practices (some 60% of the communities in Mandera West have no access to latrines), and a decrease in regional trade from recent border closings have all contributed to a lack of affordable food and water in the area.

According to the survey findings, 20,628 children—or 32.6% of all children in the region—are acutely malnourished in greater Mandera District; of these, 4,624 are severely acutely malnourished and at risk of death if they do not receive treatment. The number of malnourished children admitted into supplementary nutrition programs and outpatient therapeutic programs has increased dramatically by some 40%-100% throughout Mandera. “Even without the data, the sheer number of new malnutrition cases is alarming and indicates an acute emergency,” says Yesuf Abdella of Islamic Relief. “Malnutrition has long been underfunded in the region, but this is a dramatic upswing and we need help.”

Emergency Funding Needed

The cumulative impact has been one of growing insecurity in a region where populations depend on donor support for survival: 50% of Mandera’s population rely on food aid at a time of food scarcity and higher prices. “These survey findings confirm the [Kenyan] President’s declaration of hunger as a national disaster in Kenya,” observes Catherine Fitzgibbon, Country Director of Save the Children UK. “After years of little rain, losses of livelihoods, and over 100,000 new cases of malnutrition from last year’s food crisis alone, immediate action is critical if we want to stem this crisis.”

To counter this nutritional crisis, Action Against Hunger, Islamic Relief, and Save the Children call for the following:

  1. Continued and expanded treatment for children with acute malnutrition throughout the district;
  2. Comprehensive support for preventive health services for the most vulnerable in Mandera;
  3. Increased general food rations (of sufficient quantity, quality, and coverage) along with a “protection ration” for families treating malnourished children at home—an essential component in the success of home treatment.
  4. Assurances that drought-affected areas will have immediate access to emergency water supplies.

Additional funding and commitments are needed immediately; we call on all national and international donors to expedite emergency funding in support of existing programs in the region. Hundreds of lives are at stake.