For four months now, the country has reported a shortage of ready-to-use therapeutic foods used to fight severe acute malnutrition, which is a major cause of death in children under five globally.
The peanut-like paste fortified with proteins and vitamins known as Plumpy'nut, a miracle food, could be the difference between life and death for thousands of children in the during drought and hunger currently being experienced in the country.
According to the Health Ministry, more than 380,000 children aged between six months and five years, and 100,328 pregnant and breastfeeding mothers desperately need the food.
Now the lives of thousands of children are on the line, with the high-energy, vitamin-rich peanut paste in a foil pack seen by many as the silver bullet for severe acute malnutrition in short supply in many Kenyan hospitals, with many children doing without the donation.
The 2020 Global Nutrition Report reported that in children under five years of age, wasting rates could be up to nine times higher in some communities while stunting rates could be four times higher.
The critical lifesaver for children like Ahmed, who is suffering stunting, ran out in many counties three months ago. The most affected are those in the semi-arid counties where many children are severely malnourished.
Public hospitals, where the majority of children and mothers that are severely malnourished seek treatment, do not have enough stock.
In Wajir County, the last batch was received in July. The county’s nutrition department worries that due to the shortage of the super-food, coupled with drought and hunger, children who had moderate acute malnutrition are now at risk of moving to the severe type, though the county has allocated funds for procurement of the commodity.
“We had a buffer stock of 100 cartons, which we distributed to a few facilities. There is a pipeline breakdown since the donors are withdrawing and we have since allocated Sh7 million for commodities, including Plumpy’nuts so that we distribute to the needy children,” said Dr Dahir Somow, Wajir County director of Health.
An investigation by the Nation has revealed that the shortage of the life-saving medical product is due to Kenya’s reclassification as a low middle-income country in 2014. It was previously classified as a low-income country. This new status means the country is capable of buying some life-saving products such as Plumpy’nut and, as a result, donors withdrew their support.
He added: “We have areas that are so much in need of the Plumpy’nuts, yet others have. We are collecting and distributing to those who are seriously in need,” Dr Somow told the Nation in his office in Wajir County.
“This is a true lifesaver, only three sachets a day for six to eight weeks to a child who is down can bring him or her back to life, more so in times of famine, drought or floods,” Dr Somow said.
But what is inside this plastic wrapper that has saved millions of children?
Ready-to-use therapeutic foods such as Plumpy’nut F75 and F100 are to severely malnourished children what antibiotics are to adults with pneumonia, and their stockouts lead to the deaths of many malnourished children under five.
Although there are many different types of therapeutic foods, the most popular one is Plumpy’nut, a sweet paste made of peanuts. The paste is packed with calories and vitamins that scientists have made to nourish starving children.
“It’s a high-energy peanut paste containing sugar, vegetable oil, and skimmed milk powder, and enriched with vitamins and minerals,” said Dr Somow.
Each 92-gram sachet contains peanut-based paste, sugar, vegetable fat and skimmed milk powder, enriched with proteins, lipids, and essential vitamins and minerals. It provides 500 kilocalories.
Ms Veronica Kirogo, the head of the Nutrition division at the Health ministry, said the 92g sachet has caused children to add pounds rapidly, often going from a near-death state to relative health in less than a month.
“It is easy to use, store and doesn't need to be mixed with water, which is often scarce when drought hits and also enables parents to treat their children right in their homes, rather than only in hospitals,” said Ms Kirogo.
The Health ministry has since listed the therapeutic foods as part of essential medicine, procured by the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority and distributed to counties.
Globally, Unicef is the world’s largest buyer of therapeutic food, procuring an incredible 80 per cent of the world’s emergency supplies and supplies it to health facilities in Kenya at the cost of about Sh5, 000 enough to provide a child with six weeks’ worth of the therapeutic food until the child is nourished back to health
Plumpy’nut is made by Nutriset, a French company.