A community gathering organized by Action Against Hunger teaches mothers in rural Kenya how to identify signs of dehydration and malnutrition so they can seek medical attention for their children when needed. Photo: Lys Arango, Action Against Hunger, Kenya.
At a small church in Kakamega County, Kenya, a group of women has gathered for a talk by community health worker Adelaide Lumula. They listen attentively as Adelaide explains how to identify signs of dehydration, fever and acute malnutrition – signs that a child may need urgent medical attention.
For Mildred Shireko, a mother of five, these community health gatherings have been lifesaving. In the past, she always followed the guidance of mama kanisa – the spiritual mother of her religious sect – when it came to feeding her children. Despite her strict adherence to her spiritual leader’s rules, her children’s health suffered. “Their bellies were distended, their skin peeling, and they were falling sick all the time,” says Mildred. “I always fed them food the moment they started crying because breast milk alone is not enough.”
Mildred’s culture also forbade her from giving birth in the hospital. However, the practice of delivering babies without access to trained healthcare workers contributes to high maternal mortality rates, and leads to many challenges for new mothers and their children. These mothers miss the opportunity to learn best practices regarding breastfeeding and nutrition, such as how long to let babies suckle, and when to introduce complementary foods.
According to Kakamega’s County Director of Medical Services, Dr Arthur Andere, giving birth outside of a healthcare facility not only puts women at risk from birth-related complications, it also robs them of the opportunity to immunize their children.
Despite the local health department’s efforts to encourage women like Mildred to come to the hospital to give birth, local traditions and fear of scorn from their neighbours kept them away. In response, the health department took a more community-oriented approach. “We put basic supplies in hospitals that women could pick [up] after delivery and after attending a number of clinics, and built the capacity of nurses and healthcare workers on how to support women during delivery,” explains Dr. Andere.
Some of the educational messages shared by community health workers include promoting exclusive breastfeeding for babies in their first six months after birth, as per the recommendations of the World Health Organization, and how to identify danger signs such as fever and diarrhea.
In her first community gathering, Mildred was shocked by what she heard. “Adelaide told us that we should not give children any solid food when they are little, just breast milk alone, and she also brought a nurse who told us how people die at home during delivery when they bleed,” she says. “It was so scary that I had done this with my four children.”
She changed her ways with her fifth child: not only did she deliver in the hospital, but also breastfed the baby exclusively. “He has not given me as much headaches because he does not get sick all the time, and generally looks healthy.”
Kakamega’s community health gatherings are organized by the local health department and the Systems Enhancement for Transformative Health (SETH) project, implemented by Action Against Hunger and Helen Keller International with the financial support of Global Affairs Canada. This project focuses on maternal, newborn and child health and nutrition.
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