Kenya is in the midst of the worst drought experienced in 40 years,
following four successive failed rainy seasons. More than 4.3 million
people are in need of humanitarian assistance, among them 134,000
pregnant or breastfeeding women who are reported to be acutely
malnourished and in need of treatment. Forced to migrate in search of
water, food and pasture, many are unable to access health facilities for
critical maternal health care.
“Before the drought, our health facilities would record an average of
411 deliveries in a month, indicating a skilled birth attendance rate
of 70 per cent,” explained Maiyo Elphas, a Loima Sub-county public
health officer. “In November 2022, the number was down to 100 births
recorded, which represents a very low rate of 24.6 per cent.”
Pregnant women fending for themselves
“Every woman, rich or poor, has a 15 per cent risk for complications
around the time of delivery, but almost no maternal deaths occur in
developed regions,” the World Health Organization states,
explaining the importance of skilled birth attendance, meaning a
childbirth assisted by a trained health professional, such as a doctor,
nurse or midwife.
The rate of skilled birth attendance was already low in Kenya, a country with a high maternal death rate of 342 per 100,000 live births. But the situation is worsening dramatically for those affected by drought.
In Lochorepetet Village, 30-year-old Losikiria Kuya says she often
has to go for days without food. She is a mother of three currently
pregnant with her fourth, and is often unable to trek the 10 kilometers
to the nearest health center for her ante-natal check-ups.
“Usually when it is time to deliver, my husband will take me to the
center on a motorbike, but with him often gone in search of pasture, I
have to be ready to fend for myself if need be,” she said.
Bringing care to rural women
The drought crisis is not only affecting women’s access to essential
maternal health care; it is causing serious undernutrition among
pregnant women, escalating risks to them and their future babies. In
addition to affecting the development of a fetus, undernutrition also
causes a number of problems for pregnant women, including higher risk of sepsis and death.
UNFPA and partners – including the Kenya Red Cross, International
Rescue Committee and county health management teams – are providing
life-saving sexual and reproductive health services through outreach
efforts that bring services closer to those who need them most.
“During the drought season, we have been carrying out health outreach
activities every two weeks where we offer ante-natal and postnatal
services, family planning, nutrition and immunization services to the
community,” Lobei Health Center Nurse Dedan Njagi told UNFPA.
An estimated 15 to 20 pregnant women receive care at each outreach
visit. Community health volunteers – the backbone of the outreach teams –
are also tasked with keeping track of the women to ensure that they
deliver at a health facility under the care of a skilled attendant.
Worries on the horizon
The severity and exceptional duration of the drought is worsening an
already dire situation in Turkana County, which was already reeling from
locust infestations and the COVID-19 pandemic. Projections indicate the
possibility of a sixth consecutive poor rainy season from March to May
2023, placing even more women and girls at risk.
UNFPA is appealing for $113.7 million for its Response Plan for the Horn of Africa Drought Crisis 2022-2023 to respond to women’s and girls’ escalating needs.