Rise in preterm births threat to child health in Kenya

A nurse in charge of the newborn unit at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi checks on the progress of preterm babies in an incubator. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Health experts have raised an alarm over increasing cases of premature babies in Kenya.

Figures released by the Ministry of Health (MOH) indicate that of the 1.5 million live-births in Kenya annually, 188 thousand are of babies born too soon (below 37 weeks).

Based on these statistics, one out of every eight children born in the country is premature.

“This is worrying. And it makes Kenya one of the countries with the highest number of pre-term babies,” noted Dr Nicholas Muraguri, Director of Medical Services, during the commemoration of the World Prematurity Day.

Kenya is among the top 15 countries with the highest rate of premature babies worldwide.

He said that complications arising from preterm births were a concern to the ministry as they are currently the leading cause of neonatal mortality (death of children below one month old) in the country.

In Kenya, about 14 thousand pre-term babies lose their lives due to various health complications.

“These children have feeding problems, breathing difficulties and unstable body temperatures. They are also prone to infections due to their low immunity. So they can easily die,” said Dr Rachel Nyamai, Head of the Child Health Unit at the Ministry of Health.

Dr Katema Bizuneh, Unicef Kenya’s chief of health noted that close to 80 per cent of these deaths are largely preventable through low cost interventions that have already been scientifically proven to work effectively.

An example, he states, is the Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) technique where the tiny infant is held skin-to-skin on the mother’s chest. This keeps the baby warm, facilitates breastfeeding and wards off infection.

“As a result, the baby matures faster and can finally be discharged from the hospital,” said Dr Bizuneh.

The World Health Organisation estimates that the use of KMC can prevent close to 450,000 new-born deaths annually, especially among pre-term babies.

Studies have also shown that the mortality rate for babies who benefit from KMC can be the same or higher than that of premature babies in incubators.

The Ministry of Health is thus promoting the use of this technique, as a low cost intervention that can address the shortage of incubators in most Kenyan health facilities.

Dr Muraguri also called on mothers to complete the recommended four antenatal care visits and deliver at health facilities as this increases their survival chances and that of their babies in case of complications during delivery. 

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