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Tackling disease in Kenya

In June, a national budget of 15 billion dollars was announced in Kenya to address climate-related issues. But a coalition of scientists, the Forest Action Network and Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) believes more funding will be needed to tackle the growing threat to the nation’s health from warmer temperatures and unpredictable rains.

Research carried out by KEMRI suggests that waterborne diseases and malaria are on the increase. The country’s recent three-year drought came to an end with a good spell of short rains at the end of last year, but before then many communities, particularly in the northern Turkana region, had come to rely on shallow wells with dirty drinking water. Water shortages are likely to increase in the future and the risk of disease from dirty water is high.

Therefore the coalition has put forward a draft strategy to address health problems caused by climate change. Following the new constitution approved by Kenyans in a vote on August 4th (where the presidential system is retained but with new checks and balances and a measure of devolution to 47 new counties), the coalition hopes politicians will favour its proposals. The draft strategy includes measures to increase investment in irrigation projects, new water harvesting technologies and recycling and sewage treatment facilities. They believe such investment is vital to improve water quality and stop the rise in waterborne diseases like cholera and diarrhoea.

Cholera claims around 1,000 lives annually in Kenya and last year, more than 5,000 children under the age of five died from diarrhoea. These numbers are likely to rise according to research conducted jointly by KEMRI and the US Centres for Disease Control, which predicts diarrhoea, typhoid and cholera will overtake malaria as the country’s largest health threat by 2020.

Treatment for childhood illnesses is now provided free to all Kenyans due to funding from international donor organisations and deaths of under-fives have been reduced by approximately a third since 2003. But the scientists are worried extremes of weather will undermine these advances, if new supplies of clean water are not secured.

This call for further investment in water and sanitation facilities comes at a time when researchers at the University of New Mexico have published a report on the effects of disease on intelligence. Their report suggests controlling diseases is crucial to economic development, since diseases, parasites and pathogens erode the abilities of a country’s workforce. The finding is backed up by other research, such as a study of children in Kenya who survived a cerebral version of Malaria, where an eighth of the children were found to suffer long-term cognitive damage.

Diarrhoea is thought to pose the largest threat to a child’s development, because it prevents the absorption of food at a time when the brain is growing rapidly. Therefore, if the Kenyan coalition group can persuade the government to spend more resources on clean water and proper sewage, not only will they be saving lives, they will be maximising the abilities of their children and investing in their nation’s long-term future.

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