IRC Works to Reduce Malnutrition Among Somali Bantu in Kenya
The IRC is working to reverse high levels of malnutrition, disease and mortality among Somali Bantu living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya.
After an IRC nutrition survey conducted in January found almost two-thirds of Somali Bantu children in the camp chronically malnourished, the IRC's health team intervened with additional nutritional support and health education. "Their health status started to improve since we expanded the supplementary nutrition program," says Dr. Jagwer Gregory, IRC program coordinator in Kenya.
The survey found that the rate of severe malnutrition among the Somali Bantu refugees was double the rate of the rest of the camp population and, more alarming, that 65 percent of Somali Bantu children were chronically malnourished, a rate almost five times higher than the camp's general population.
Since July of 2002, Somali Bantu children have also comprised around 60 percent of new admissions to the IRC's supplementary and therapeutic feeding programs, despite comprising only 16 percent of the camp population.
According to former nutrition manager Dolores Rio, these findings suggest both a recurrent nutrition problem and more recent nutritional stress, which she said is probably related to changes in food supply and disease. The refugees in Kakuma are entirely dependent on food aid and there have been recent problems in securing adequate levels of food from donors. "We've noticed improvement among clients in our feeding programs," Rio said. "But we remain concerned about the consequences of continuing food shortages on this already vulnerable population."
Besides malnutrition, says Dr. Gregory, Somali Bantu refugees face higher disease and death rates, and lower birth weights than the general refugee population in Kakuma, due to poverty, a lack of health information among the community, and low levels of utilization of public health facilities. He also notes that the Somali Bantu arrived in the refugee camp last year with poorer health than most new arrivals, a limited support network and fewer coping skills to help them adapt to the harsh conditions in Kakuma.
Dr. Gregory said malnutrition does not need to be severe to pose a serious health threat. Even mild malnutrition weakens children, making them more susceptible to pneumonia or diarrhea. Both are significant causes of death among children at the camp.
To address the health needs of the Bantu refugees, the IRC expanded a clinic in the area of the camp where the Somalis reside and have increased services and staffing.