The majority of children aged under five in Kenya are at risk of dying from diarrhoeal diseases as a result of zinc deficiency, a recent study indicates.
A report on micronutrient intake in Kenya shows that 83 per cent of pre-school children aged below 59 months have zinc deficiency, with those from poor households and residing in rural areas being the worst affected.
The latest results show that the current prevalence is higher than the 50.8 per cent indicated in the 1999 national survey.
The children, the 2016 Kenya Micro-Nutrient Survey (KNMS) notes, had the highest prevalence of zinc deficiency compared to all other population subgroups.
Prevalence among children aged between five to 14 was also high at 80.2 per cent. The current rates could also be higher than what is indicated in the survey since the data was collected in 2011.
The KNMS report found that zinc was currently the micronutrient with the highest deficiency rate in pre-school children nationally.
Head of nutrition and dietetics at the Ministry of Health, Gladys Mugambi, says the latest revelation will help the government to put in place interventions address the zinc deficiency and counter deaths related to its absence.
“The level of zinc deficiency and especially among children is at an all time high, and this is a matter of great concern to us. It can take a while before interventions are put in place and that is why we encouraging mothers to ensure that they have given their children zinc rich foods,” she said.
“This also means that in the meantime we will focus on educating mothers on the types of foods that are rich in zinc.”
According to the study, zinc deficiency in infants increases with the introduction of complementary foods mainly cereals that have lower nutrient densities.
These foods are also known to contain high concentrations of phytates and polyphenols that inhibit intestinal absorption of dietary zinc.
The study also shows that the prevalence of zinc deficiency in the rural areas was at 86 per cent while urban regions rate stood at 76.4 per cent.
“The prevalence of zinc deficiency differed significantly across wealth quintiles where those children from poorer households had a high prevalence (89 per cent) compared to those from richer households (75 per cent),” the report added.
“This high prevalence of zinc deficiency is way above the 20 per cent prevalence cut-off to raise a public health concern…the results suggest that a concerted effort is needed in the country to improve the zinc nutrition.”
The report says that zinc (iron, calcium and Vitamin A) comes from 11 different food groups that include beans, red meat, nuts, eggs, seeds, fats, fruits, dairy and grain products.
Grains are the leading source of zinc and iron. Pumpkin seeds are known to have high zinc concretes and already a number of households are using them to fortify porridge flour amongst other sources of minerals that include omena, which is a rich source of protein.
Medical research shows that zinc deficiency increases the chances of children of dying from chronic diarrhoea.
According to Unicef, oral rehydration salts (ORS) and zinc are co-effective treatments for childhood diarrhoea.
Zinc reduces the severity and duration of symptoms and the risk of recurrence of diarrhoea in the immediate short-term while ORS replaces essential fluids and salts lost through diarrhoea. They are used to complement other interventions that include rotavirus vaccination.
According to the UN agency the estimated 60 per cent suffering from diarrhoea do not access treatment with ORS and 95 per cent of children do not access zinc.
Globally, diarrhoea is one of the leading causes of under-five child mortality globally and child malnutrition. It is estimated that 760,000 children die annually from diarrhoeal diseases globally.
Worse is that 60 per cent of these cases occur in 10 countries in Africa and Asia namely Kenya, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania and Uganda.
The 2017 Economic Survey indicates there were 2.8 million reported diarrhoea cases a decline from 3.5 million cases recorded in 2015.
Food fortification is the most effective way of increasing micro nutrient intake at a relatively low cost, KNMS says.
However, it notes that while Kenya has ongoing planned fortification of salt, wheat flour, vegetable oil and maize meal, there is room for improvement by identifying foods ideal for fortification.