Category Archives: Child Health

What’s happening to Kenya’s first generation born HIV-positive?

Globally, there is a general lack of awareness of the health and social challenges that face the first generation of children born HIV positive; in fact, this has not been an issue of special focus. Yet the population of that group of people is not only increasing in numbers, it is also growing older. According to UNAIDS, of an estimated 390,000 children born with HIV in 2010 globally, 90 percent of them were born in 22 countries, of which 21 are in sub-Saharan Africa, the odd one out being India[1].

There is a lot of hope that with increasing access to improved PMTCT services especially the availability of the more effective antiretroviral regimen for pregnant women and their newborn babies, fewer children will be born HIV positive. Where highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) has been employed, the rate has reduced to below 5 percent. As a result, in 2011 UNAIDS and PEPFAR jointly launched the Global Plan towards the Elimination of New HIV Infections among Children by 2015 and Keeping Their Mothers Alive. The plan has a main focus on the 22 countries (see above).

Source: UNAIDS and PEPFAR bring together Health Ministers and partners to advance progress in ending new HIV infections in children

For many years there was a strongly held assumption that survival from birth to adolescence with HIV was so unlikely without treatment as to be negligible, and that HIV in late childhood was very unusual. The accepted view was that the majority would die before the age of five. However, there is now accumulating evidence that children born with HIV do survive into teens and adults. In Kenya, the oldest of these children are now approaching 30[2]. In Uganda it is estimated that as many as 150,000 children are already living with HIV right from childhood. In 2006, the oldest surviving of young people born with HIV in Uganda turned 23 years old, thanks to antiretroviral therapy[3]. That same year, The Aids Support Organization (Taso) had registered 4,696 ten to nineteen-year-olds living with HIV since infancy, while another 1100 young people were receiving care at the Mildmay Centre and Mulago Hospital.

A recent article by Amelia Hill[4] entitled Teenagers born with HIV tell of life under society’s radar, HIV-positive youngsters who were infected before or at birth reveal their secret lives, highlights some of the challenges faced by youngsters in the United Kingdom who were born HIV positive. These challenges include:

  • Coping with the discovery that they are HIV positive: Usually the doctors and the parents would have withheld the information until such time as it is considered “safe” to divulge the status to the child. One 18 year old describes how at nine years old a careless receptionist at his local hospital blurted his status, and his reaction to the shocking revelation: “I remember standing there, with my mother’s hand around mine, as these feelings of complete confusion and fear washed over me. I suddenly realised that the pills my mum had been giving me every day – that I had thought were sweeties – were medicine, after that day at the hospital, I would lock myself in the bathroom when my mum took them out of the cupboard. Or I’d pretend to swallow them, and then throw them away. I know I’m killing myself,” he says truthfully, but with studied nonchalance. Inconsistency in the taking of medicines has important implication to development of resistance to specific drugs by the virus.
  •  Fear of stigma: HIV-positive youngsters have expressed worry over being branded by the stigma that is attached to HIV in society. “Society forces me to live two lives, one of which – the one where I’m honest about my status – I have to keep completely secret from the other one. It’s partly because I have to live this life of shame and secrecy that I find it so hard to take my meds….I’m angry about the stigma in society that makes me have to lie about my status“. Some adolescents have admitted having considered killing themselves.

Two studies, one in Zimbabwe and the other in Uganda have specifically highlighted some of the issues facing adolescents and young adults who were born HIV positive in those countries. In Zimbabwe, a clinical study[5] has suggested that as many as one in four children may survive into adolescence without diagnosis or treatment. Of the children under HIV care in Zimbabwe during 2008, 42% were aged 10-19 years. This study has bust the long held assumptions that HIV in late childhood is very unusual, and that survival from birth to adolescence with HIV was so unlikely without treatment as to be negligible. Among the problems most commonly faced by adolescents were psychosocial issues and poor drug adherence (which is critical in keeping the ever-changing AIDS virus at bay).

The Population Council in Uganda[6]  has addressed reproductive health needs of adolescents born with HIV. It involved a sample of 732 adolescents aged 10-19 years. The study shows that these adolescents are most likely to be orphaned, hardly any of the teens and young adults born with HIV have both their parents alive, As such they are subject to the challenges that face orphans generally. They were also found to be at risk of entry into casual relationship, using no protection, and with persons whose HIV status they do not know. Most of them conceal their status to their partners. The study reports that as many as 61 percent of the sexually active adolescents surveyed said they did not use any protective method during their first time sex, and do not know the status of their current partner.

There are lots of similarities between the findings in the two Africa-based studies and the issues raised by their counterparts in the UK report. What these limited studies clearly reveal is the inadequacy of our knowledge regarding the social, psychosocial and health challenges faced by adolescents and youths born HIV positive and their guardians.

[1] UNAIDS and PEPFAR bring together Health Ministers and partners to advance progress in ending new HIV infections in children

 [5] Rashida Ferrand,a Sara Lowe,b Barbra Whande,b et al., Survey of children accessing HIV services in a high prevalence setting: time for adolescents to count?Bull World Health Organ. 2010 June 1; 88(6): 428–434. Published online 2009 December 16. doi:  10.2471/BLT.09.066126


A malaria survivor reflects on World Malaria Day

Wednesday the 25th April 2012 was World Malaria Day and as I joined others on that day in reflecting on the disease I could not fail to appreciate how much the malady has impacted on my life. It is particularly sad to read the statistic in the World Malaria Report 2011 thatin 2010 an estimated 655,000 people died from malaria–most of them African children”. And although the same Report states that malaria mortality rates have fallen by33% in the WHO African Region, in Africa one child still dies every minute from the disease, accounting for around 90% of all malaria mortality worldwide.

Image Source, K4Health’s POPLINE Database

I am a malaria survivor, I suppose many times over, but I particularly remember my experiences as a little boy growing up during the Second World War in a place called Itoloni in today’s Mwingi South Constituency. Ndetema (as we called Fever) was very common, and it was treated at first with quinine- that horribly bitter stuff from the cinchona tree. We had our noses squeezed which forced our mouths to open for the colourless liquid to be poured down our throats, three times a day. Then I was told my spleen was large (wasyungu) and was not improving with the quinine alone, so my grandmother was brought in. I can never forget the experience. Although I was particularly very fond of my grandmother, I always anticipated her visits to our home with a lot of apprehension. All the same it seems she successfully treated my splenomegaly with her nasty herbal concoctions accompanied by hot massages over the organ using leaves of the aloe vera plant.

When the Japanese occupied Indonesian islands where the cinchona tree grew they cut off supply of quinine to the British (who were ruling us those days), and it took a few years before quinine was replaced with mepacrine. The latter is a greenish yellow dye discovered at Bayer, Germany way back in 1931. Mepacrine-hydrochloride (also known as Quinacrine and Atabrine) was one of the first synthetic substitutes for quinine although later superseded by chloroquine. I remember being taken to the Native Civil Dispensary  in Nairobi, (it stood next to Kingsway Police Station- today’s Central Police Station), for weekly supply of mepacrine which was dispensed in large topped-up mugs. It was horrible! Among the side effects of the drug were toxic psychosis and ringing ears. Incidentally, Quinacrine has been used for non- surgical sterilization for women, and several peer reviewed studies suggested the procedure was potentially safer than surgical sterilization. Nevertheless, in 1998 the Supreme Court of India banned the import or use of the drug, based on reports that it could cause cancer or ectopic pregnancies.

Chloroquine, discovered at the same Bayer laboratories in 1934, was not introduced into clinical practice for the treatment of malaria until 1947. The drug would then hold supreme until the 1990s when emergence of widespread resistance to chloroquine led to its withdrawal from use in most countries in Africa, being systematically replaced by Artemisinin. It is thus with trepidation that we receive news that the most deadly species of malaria parasites, Plasmodium falciparum, is becoming resistant to artemisinin.

Another encounter with malaria was in the early 1960s, while a student at the Makerere College Medical School in Kampala, Uganda, where I came across a disease called Big Spleen Disease, a syndrome diagnosed in men and women characterised by evidence of recent malaria, anaemia and splenomegaly. Later, during 1967 and 1968, when I was practicing medicine at the Kenyatta National Hospital I conducted a study on anaemia in pregnancy[i], the findings of which revealed that among the very severely anaemic pregnant women splenomegaly was commonly found, and most of the women had evidence of recent malaria infection.

In areas endemic for malaria pregnancy is associated with a reduction in already acquired immunity, with consequent increase in clinical attacks of severe malaria (including cerebral malaria) and other complications such as haemolytic anaemia. Malaria-induced haemolytic anaemia is particularly common among women with their first pregnancy and tends to cause more severe anaemia with rapidly dropping haemoglobin in a woman who only a few days earlier had normal level of haemoglobin. These attacks can be prevented through intermittent preventive treatment with an effective antimalarial, for all pregnant women living in endemic areas, also use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, and indoor residual spraying..

Let me end by mentioning an indirect involvement with malaria; this time concerning my father who in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a member of the Nairobi Municipality crew that eradicated malaria transmission in Nairobi. They used DDT before its name became an anathema. Yet to date there has not been any equally effective ‘safer’ substitute. Shall we continue watching our children die of malaria in order that we protect those of the future from little understood risks?

[i]Mati JKG, Hatimy A, and Gebbie DAM (1971) The importance of anaemia of pregnancy in Nairobi and the role of malaria in the aetiology of megaloblastic anaemia. Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 74:1

Remembering my fistula patients as Kenya observes FGM Day

I couldn’t help remembering my two fistula patients in the 1970s as Kenya observed the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM on February 6 2012. For Kenya, this was barely four months since President Mwai Kibaki on September 30, 2011, signed into law a bill outlawing the practice of FGM. Generally, in communities where it is practiced, FGM is not viewed as a dangerous act or violation of rights, but more as a necessary step to raise a girl, and in many instances, as a rite of passage, even though it is mind-boggling how this can apply to children as young as 5 years!

Female Genital Mutilation has both immediate and long term consequences to the health of women which depend on the type performed, the expertise of the circumciser, the hygienic conditions under which it is conducted, among others. The most severe complications are usually associated with infibulations. As a means of minimising these risks the phenomenon of “medicalisation” of FGM has manifested in many countries including in Kenya, whereby these procedures are carried out by trained health professionals in health facilities. For example, a survey carried out in Kenya just over a decade ago indicated that one-third of the circumcised women admitted to being cut by a health worker (KDHS 1998). However, while medicalisation my result in fewer complications and perhaps save some lives, it must be condemned because it justifies a torturous practice built on gender discrimination and non-respect of reproductive rights of women.


One of the long-term medical complications associated with FGM, especially infibulations, is obstetric fistula- vesico-vaginal (VVF) or recto-vaginal (RVF), or both. I keep thinking about some of my fistula patients in the 1970s. During my active practice in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) I happened to be one of two gynaecologists (the other was Dr Balwant Singh Khehar), with special interest in the treatment of urinary incontinence, the commonest cause of this being VVF. At any given time there would be one or two such cases in my ward. This condition, which arises mainly from prolonged obstruction of labour during childbirth, is a preventable problem if only all pregnant women had access to skilled care during labour and delivery. Yet it has remained a persistent problem- Dr Peter Candler, one of the gynaecologist at the King George VI Hospital (now KNH) has reported that in 1954 the commonest gynaecological condition encountered was obstetric VVF. How sad it is that decades after our independence, a substantial proportion of Kenyan women remain at risk of this tragedy.

Urinary incontinence is one of the most frightful afflictions of human kind and often results in the sufferer becoming a social outcast. Surgical treatment can be technically difficult and demanding and by no means guarantees success. I remember two teenage girls (Halima and Fatma) who were transferred from Wajir District Hospital with very large fistulae, which we had to repair in stages over several weeks. These girls almost became permanent residents of Ward 23 in the old KNH, and to occupy them they were provided each with a knitting kit and encouraged to make whatever they wanted. One morning, as I conducted my ward round one of the girls, Halima presented me with a blue knitted sweater. I was very moved by this deed. I guessed this was her way of expressing gratitude, perhaps for our compassion towards her, because she was, as yet, not cured!

The case of Halima is typical of the continuing violations of reproductive rights of young girls under the banner of culture and tradition. In terms of treating Halima’s condition, clearly we were working at the tail end of the chain of events that resulted in a damage that should never have happened. In the first place, Halima was only 14, too young to be someone’s wife and to have begun childbearing. She had been subjected to FGM-infibulation, before a forced marriage. In both situations her reproductive rights had been denied; she had been abused by the society she lived in. Then when she got pregnant she was further denied the right to health care- an opportunity to have access to skilled attendance during the antenatal period, as well as care during childbirth.

The image in this post was sourced from where the strong-hearted can find more pictures of the gruesome operation.

Forgetting Them Is Not An Option

Is it possible to achieve the health related MDGs without a special focus on the health status of the poor, the marginalized and the hard-to reach in Kenya?

The Government of Kenya being signatory to the Millennium Declaration is obliged to put in place measures for achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While only three of the eight MDGs relate directly to health, all others have important direct effects on health considering the interrelationship between health and development in general. The core health MDGs are Reducing Child Mortality (MDG4), Improve Maternal Health (MDG5), and Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other Diseases (MDG6).

Achieving the health related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be possible without a special focus on the health status of the poor, the marginalized and the hard-to reach in Kenya. This post examines the evidence to support this position utilising findings from the 2008-9 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS), with regard to the following selected indicators: Under-five mortality rate (MDG4.1); Percent births attended by skilled attendant (MDG5.2); Contraceptive prevalence rate (MDG5.3); and Unmet need for family planning (MDG5.6).

Analysis of the data on the various health indicators shows vast disparities exist based on socio-economic status and the area of residence (see Table 1). These disparities have persisted in results of successive national surveys over the last three decades. Generally, the national average statistic is used in reports regarding achievement of goals (national or international). However, such data is not particularly useful when it comes to designing interventions to improve on the health indicators, since it fails to direct attention to where greatest need for intervention exists.

Under-5 Mortality Rate (MDG4.1): Nationally there has been significant improvement in child survival in the last decade which could be attributed at least in part to childhood immunization coverage and malaria prevention interventions. However, analysis of the data by region shows there are areas in this country where child mortality rates remain very high. Whereas there was a 28 percent reduction in under-five mortality rate in Nyanza from 206 deaths per 1,000 reported in 2003 to 149 deaths per 1,000 in 2008/9, the region remains the place with the highest child mortality rate in Kenya. Almost one in seven children in Nyanza dies before attaining his or her fifth birthday, compared with one in 20 children in Central province (51 deaths per 1,000), which has the lowest rate. The risk of dying before age five is almost three times higher in Nyanza than in Central province.

The other variables shown in Table 1 which influence child survival are mother’s level of education and household wealth status. Under-five mortality is noticeably lower for children whose mothers either completed primary school (68 deaths per 1,000 live births) or attended secondary school (59 deaths per 1,000 live births) than among those whose mothers have no education (86 deaths per 1,000 live births). However, under-five mortality is highest among children whose mothers have incomplete primary education. Similar patterns are observed for infant mortality levels (not shown). Child mortality rates generally decline as the wealth quintile increases, though the pattern is not uniform.

Skilled attendance at delivery (MDG5.2): The policy of the Ministry of Health as stated in the National Reproductive Health Policy (2007) is that all women should have access to skilled attendance throughout the continuum of pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum periods, and that the Traditional Birth Attendant (TBA) is no longer recognised as a skilled attendant. Overall, the data shows that only 44 percent of births in Kenya are delivered under the supervision of a skilled birth attendant, usually a nurse or midwife, and that TBAs continue to play a vital role in providing delivery services. Almost 28 percent of births were assisted by TBAs, the same percentage as were assisted by nurses and midwives. As expected, births in urban areas and births to mothers who have more education or wealth are more likely to be assisted by medical personnel than are those births to mothers who reside in rural areas or who have less education or wealth. Regional differentials in type of assistance at delivery are also pronounced, with Western province recording the lowest proportion (26 percent) of births assisted by medical professionals, followed by North Eastern province (32 percent). Nairobi has the highest proportion of births assisted by medical personnel (89 percent).

Contraceptive Prevalence Rate (MDG5.3): Married women in urban areas are more likely to use a contraceptive (53 percent) than their rural counterparts (43 percent). Contraceptive use increases dramatically with increasing level of education. Use of any contraceptive methods rises from 20 percent among married women in the lowest wealth quintile to 57 percent among those in the fourth wealth quintile, and then drops off slightly for those in the highest wealth quintile. The North Eastern Province had the lowest CPR of 4 percent.

Unmet need for FP (MDG5.6): Levels of unmet need for family planning remain high among Kenyan women, with nearly a quarter (26%) of currently married women indicating that they have unmet need for family planning. Unmet need for family planning is higher in rural areas (27 percent) than in urban areas (20 percent). Nyanza province has the highest percentage of married women with an unmet need for family planning (32 percent), followed by Rift Valley province (31 percent), while Nairobi, North Eastern, and Central provinces have the lowest unmet need at 15-16 percent. Married women with incomplete primary education have the highest unmet need for family planning (33 percent) compared with those with completed primary education (27 percent), no education (26 percent), and secondary and higher education (17 percent). Unmet need declines steadily as wealth increases, from 38 percent of married women in the lowest quintile to 19 percent of those in the highest quintile.

What we learn from these findings in KDHS is that vast disparities persist according to spatial distribution and socio-economic strata of the populations; this implies that we cannot achieve health related MDGs without bringing on board all including the poor and marginalized groups. Forgetting them is not an option! The GOK needs to openly recognise that achievement of MDGs will remain an illusion so long as current disparities in access to health care persist. There needs to be concordance between policy statements of equity and practice; commensurate allocation according to need. Hopefully the devolved county governments will make use of disaggregated data in their planning and budgetary processes, and ensure equitable access to health care for all.

Evolution of Modern Obstetrics and Gynaecology Practice in Kenya

In a previous post it was opined that although Kenya has the capacity to train the nurse workforce it needs, the prevailing challenge is ensuring all trained nurses and midwives are employed and efficiently deployed. The State of World’s Midwifery[i] 2011 observes that appropriate employment and deployment of skilled midwives is essential for Kenya to make meaningful progress towards achieving MDG 5. The current post seeks to highlight some of the milestones in the evolution of modern practice of midwifery and midwifery training in Kenya.

In colonial Kenya and before the mid-1960s, obstetrics and gynaecology were practiced as separate services located in different facilities. Whereas gynaecology services were availed as sub-specialty within the department of Surgery at the King George VI Hospital (later renamed Kenyatta National Hospital), midwifery services were considered a separate service altogether, provided in maternity homes that were usually sited some distance away from the main hospital. The tradition of building maternity wards some distance away from the main hospital arose as a long-practised measure to prevent cross infection especially from surgical patients. It also reflected the colonial policy that whereas the Government undertook to provide Africans with what was described as ‘complete medical care’, this service did not extend to obstetric care, which was regarded as a responsibility of the local authorities, the Municipal Councils or in the reserves, the African District Councils[ii].

The initiative to develop midwifery services in urban areas of Kenya is credited to the East African Women’s League (EAWL)[iii] which, “out of concern for the lack of a maternity ward for African women”, and with the encouragement of Lady Grigg (Governor‘s wife), founded the Lady Grigg Child Welfare and Maternity League in 1926. By 1928 the Lady Grigg Maternity Home at Pumwani (now the Pumwani Maternity Hospital) had been built. Other maternity hospitals followed, in Mombasa- Lady Grigg Maternity Hospital Mombasa (now part of the Coast Provincial General Hospital), and in Nairobi- the Social Service League Ngara Maternity Home (sadly, this has since ceased to be a hospital).

The EAWL also advocated for the training of African nurses and midwives, and all three maternity hospitals mentioned above undertook the training of the early midwives in Kenya (to enrolled midwife level). Later on, in pursuit of primary health care following the Alma Ata Declaration of 1978, midwifery training was incorporated into nursing training to produce the Enrolled Community Health Nurse. Training at registered midwife level had to wait until registered nurse training had started in Kenya. Training at para-medical level in Kenya can be traced back to 1927 when the first group of students was recruited for training as Medical Assistants at the Native Civil Hospital, (later re-named King George VI Hospital and Kenyatta National Hospital). This cadre was trained to provide both Nursing and Clinical services. These are the forerunner of the Clinical Officer of today. In 1952 the first batch of Kenya Registered Nurses commenced training at the King George VI Hospital and the Medical Training Centre (now Medical Training College)[iv]. Registered nurses could then undertake a further year’s training in midwifery to qualify for registration as Registered Midwife.

By 1954 of the 12 full time specialists at the King George VI Hospital, only one, Dr Peter L Candler specialised in gynaecology[v]. According to Peter Candler, the most common gynaecological condition he dealt with at that time was vaginal fistula resulting from lacerations during childbirth. This was followed by complications of generalised pelvic sepsis and infertility. However, he reported that ‘attempted’ abortion was unlikely among Africans because of the strong desire to bear children! Nearly two decades later when we came into the scene, the pattern of gynaecology had changed little, except in the case of abortion which had since become a prominent gynaecological problem.

The expansion of obstetrics and gynaecology services in Kenya is largely attributable to the University of Nairobi’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. The medical school in Nairobi was established through a presidential directive shortly after 1963, the year of Kenya’s independence. To implement the directive, the Ministry of Health with British Government financing, invited the University of Glasgow to assist in preparing the KNH as a teaching hospital ahead of the launch of the University of Nairobi Medical School in 1967. Thus, a team from Glasgow arrived, and in September 1965, oversaw the opening of the Obstetric Unit at the KNH. Initially, patients were ‘borrowed’ from the Pumwani Maternity Hospital through a process whereby one of the consultants would select a couple of women in early labour and transport them to the Obstetric Unit at KNH for their management. In addition, the Department ran, on behalf of the Nairobi City Council, four antenatal clinics at the health centres in Riruta, Waithaka, Woodley, and Langata. This way it was possible to have enough clinical material for the medical students and student midwives from the School of Nursing. It should also be mentioned that the first medical students taught at KNH were actually ‘borrowed’ from Makerere Medical School! Initially these were Kenyan students who chose to spend an elective term at the KNH, but later the hospital provided refuge to students who fled Idi Amin’s tyranny in Uganda, including some students from other countries.

Establishment of gynaecology (gynae) as a specialty at KNH, separate from Surgery, was not without resistance and intrigues. There were those surgeons that felt there was absolutely nothing new to be gained by creating a department of gynaecology- after all, hadn’t they treated gynae cases all those years? A thorny area concerned the allocation of operating theatre space for a regular gynaecology list. We needed a theatre for emergencies such as ruptured ectopic pregnancy and incomplete abortion; as well as another theatre for elective (‘cold’) cases. I remember one senior surgeon openly saying incomplete abortion never required an evacuation- after all many occurred in the ‘bush’ where there were no doctors! He had always sent them away without any evacuation.

[i] The State of World’s Midwifery 2011, was launched in June 2011 by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

[ii] Letter written on October 20, 1954 by Robert F Gray to Mr Walter Rogers of Institute of Current World Affairs, 522 Fifth Avenue, New York 36, New York.

[iii] The East Africa Women’s League is an organisation for white women who were born in, lived or worked in East Africa. It was founded in Nairobi in 1917, its main concern being the welfare of women and children of all races in the country then known as ‘British East Africa’.


[v] Note: Dr Peter Lawrence Candler was admitted to the Membership of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (MRCOG) in 1962.


What’s in the way of achieving improved maternal health in Kenya?

By Japheth Mati MD


The purpose of this discussion is first and foremost to keep the torch burning on the unacceptably high rates of maternal deaths that persist in Kenya. It reviews where we are with regard to attainment of Millennium Development Goal 5 (MDG5), and examines some of the critical barriers to good progress in improving maternal health in Kenya. The views expressed in the paper are founded on respect for women’s constitutional right to life and health, and therefore their right to quality reproductive health services, which ensure that every pregnancy is wanted; all pregnant women and their infants have access to skilled care; and that every woman is able to reach a functioning health facility to obtain appropriate care in the event of complications. Going through pregnancy and childbirth safely is what every woman should expect. We know that even though complications of pregnancy cannot always be prevented[i], deaths from these complications can be averted. Close to 80 percent of all maternal deaths can be averted if women received timely and appropriate medical care. We have the knowledge of the causes of these deaths and how they can be prevented; we know what works and what does not work. It is now generally accepted that lack of skilled assistance[ii] during childbirth is the most important determinant of maternal mortality. What, in my view, is lacking is the commitment, at all levels, to act; to make the reduction of maternal mortality a high priority; and to reflect this in resource allocations to health services, especially for reproductive health care.


On July 15, 2010 the Honourable Member of Parliament for Laisamis asked the Minister of Public Health and Sanitation (a) to provide the current statistics of maternal deaths in the country (Kenya) and (to) state the steps the Government has taken towards achieving MDG5; and, (b) what achievements the Government has made so far in terms of improving maternal health. I would like to believe this was not just a coincidence, and that it probably had a bearing on the Africa Union Summit that took place in Kampala, Uganda, July 19-27, and UN High-level Plenary Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG Summit) that was scheduled to take place in New York, September 20-22, 2010. Both meetings, at which Kenya was represented, had the major objective of reviewing progress towards the attainment of MDGs by 2015.

In his reply the Honourable Assistant Minister of Public Health and Sanitation relied heavily on the findings in Kenya’s Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) of 2008/9 which reported a maternal mortality ratio of 488 per 100,000 live births. The Minister emphasised there were wide regional disparities, and that in some provinces the mortality ratio rises up to 1,000 per 100,000 live births. This translates to approximately 8,000 pregnant Kenyan women dying each year from pregnancy-related complications. Unfortunately, the Minister was not specific regarding the progress the Government has made so far in terms of achieving MDG5 of improving maternal health in Kenya. Fortunately, in this country we have serially compiled data which can be used to show trends in the attainment of the various indicators of improved maternal health. These are briefly reviewed below.

Review of the progress made in improving maternal health in Kenya

The targets for MDG5 (Improve maternal health) are two: 5.A- Reduce by three quarters between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality rate; and 5.B- Achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health. The indicators to show attainment of these targets are as follows: 5A- Maternal Mortality Ratio and the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel; and 5B- Contraceptive prevalence rate; adolescent birth rate; antenatal care coverage; and unmet need for family planning.

Maternal mortality ratio (Target 5.1)

According to the KDHS 2008/9 maternal[iii] deaths represent about 15 percent of all deaths to women age 15-49 in Kenya. The maternal mortality ratio (MMR) during the 10-year period before the 2008/9 survey was estimated at 488 per 100,000 live births, which, though not statistically significant, was higher than the figure of 414 per 100,000 live births, which was reported in the 2003 KDHS. This implies that in the period between the two surveys, the rate of maternal deaths had either stagnated more or less at the same level, or had actually risen. Clearly, these figures do not depict a reducing trend towards the target of 147 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births set for 2015.

Proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel (Target 5.2)

Skilled attendance at delivery is an important variable that influences the birth outcome and the health of the mother and the infant. One of the indicators of skilled attendance is the proportion of births that take place in health facilities. Skilled attendance can also be accessed through domiciliary or community midwifery. Proper medical attention and infection prevention practices during delivery can reduce the risks of obstetric complications that increase the risk of morbidity and mortality for the mother and her baby.

The KDHS 2008/9 showed that only about 43 percent of births in Kenya took place in a health facility, and that the decision on place of delivery was mainly influenced by factors related to ease of access to services- availability of transport to, and charges for services at, the health facility. The same survey also reported that, overall, only 44 percent of births in Kenya were delivered under the supervision of a skilled health provider (nurse, midwife or doctor). Contrary to the prevailing policy, traditional birth attendants (TBAs) assisted up to 28 percent of mothers at delivery (the same percentage as were assisted by nurses and midwives!).

In terms of progress made, the proportion of births assisted by medically trained personnel has increased only marginally, from 42 percent in the 2003 survey to 44 percent in 2008-09, this being far below the projected target of 90% for 2015. The proportion of mothers that received skilled attendance was, as would be expected, lowest in rural areas, and among women of lowest socio-economic status.

Contraceptive prevalence rates (Target 5.3)

Kenya’s Family Planning Programme was established in 1967, a pioneering step in sub-Saharan Africa, which saw the contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) among married women in Kenya rise from 7 percent in 1979 to 17 percent in 1984, 27 percent in 1989, and 33 percent in 1993. However, during the period 1998-2003, CPR leveled off at 39 percent with wide regional as well as social strata differentials. The KDHS 2008/9 has demonstrated a rising trend, with CPR reaching 46 percent for use of any method and 39 percent for use of modern methods of family planning. While this trend is encouraging, CPR still falls short of the target for 2015 (of 70%), by more than 20 percentage points.

Adolescent birth rate (Target 5.4)

Besides being an important contributor to the overall population growth, adolescent fertility is a determinant of maternal mortality rate, as well. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of mortality among women between the ages of 15 and 19, this to a large extent resulting from the lack of access to good-quality health care, including abortion services, antenatal care and skilled attendance at delivery. The World Health Organization estimates show that the risk of maternal death is twice as great for women between 15 and 19 years when compared with those between the ages of 20 and 24 years[iv]. In Kenya, the 2008/9 KDHS showed that there had been a reduction in the proportion of teenagers who had begun childbearing (adolescent fertility), down to18 percent from the figure of 23 percent reported in the 2003 KDHS, although wide regional disparities persisted. Further analysis showed that the proportion of teenage mothers had declined from 19 percent in 2003 to 15 percent in 2008-09, while the proportion of those pregnant with their first child had declined from 5 percent in 2003 to 3 percent in 2008-09. These are encouraging results, even though it is difficult to explain the apparent reduction in adolescent fertility at a time when there was a fall in CPR (any method), among women 15-19 years, between the two surveys (from 6.7 percent in 2003 to 5.9 percent in 2008/9). Could this be an impact of the “Nimechill” (“I am abstaining”)[v] campaign?

Antenatal care coverage (Target 5.5)

Antenatal care is a critical intervention for the promotion of maternal and child health. The goal of antenatal care is to maintain and improve the health of the mother and her baby in utero, so that both are brought to labour in a good state of health. Antenatal care aims to diagnose and treat abnormalities of pregnancy soon after their symptoms are apparent; and to screen women for other conditions which may be present, before their symptoms manifest[vi]. Although the majority of pregnant women in Kenya attend an antenatal clinic at least once, usually starting in the second trimester, the KDHS 2008/9 showed that only 47 percent made the minimum four visits, with only 15 percent doing so in the first trimester as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Unmet need for family planning (Target 5.6)

Unmet need for family planning reflects the desire among Kenyan women (and their partners) to control their fertility. Usually, it is the proportion of married women who either want no more children or wish to delay their next birth by at least two years, and are not using a family planning method. The KDHS 2008/9 showed that there is widespread desire among Kenyans to control the timing and number of births they have (i.e. to plan their families). Almost 54 percent of all currently married women either did not want to have another child or had already been sterilized, while nearly 27 percent would like to wait two years or longer before their next birth. Overall, there have been only minimal changes in fertility preferences in Kenya since 1998, and unmet need for family planning continues to exist in roughly one-quarter of all currently married women. Levels of unmet need decline steadily with increase in the level of education and wealth status.

Impact of improved maternal health on achievement of MDG4

Improvement of maternal health (MDG5) will have an important bearing on the achievement of MDG4- Reduce child mortality, since Infant mortality rate is one of the indicators for its achievement (Indicator 4.2). Perinatal mortality is a good indicator of the state of health in general and the health status of the mother at the time of delivery; as such it is strongly associated with maternal mortality. The 2008/9 KDHS reported a perinatal mortality rate of 37 deaths per 1,000 pregnancies[vii], which was a marginal decline from the 40 deaths per 1,000 pregnancies recorded in the 2003 KDHS. In the same survey neonatal mortality rate[viii] was estimated at 31 deaths per 1,000 live births for the period 2004-2008, 35 for the period 1999-2003 and 25 for the period 1994-1998, which indicate that neonatal mortality rate has not shown significant declining trend in the last 10-15 years.

Summary of the progress

From the above review, it can be concluded that whereas considerable effort has been put to health policy and strategic planning, including the development of reproductive health policy, reproductive health strategy and the road map for accelerating the attainment of the MDGs related to maternal and newborn health in Kenya, these are yet to translate to actual reduction in maternal deaths. In terms of Target 5A, Kenya has not started showing any downward trend in MMR, or an increase in the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel. However, in the case of Target 5B, if the recent rising trend in CPR can be sustained, there is possibility that the projected figure of 70 percent may just be attained by 2015. Otherwise, a lot more effort is needed to produce any meaningful gains as far as the other indicators are concerned. If the MDGs are to be achieved by 2015, not only must the level of financial investment be increased (see below) but innovative programmes and policies aimed at overall development and economic and social transformation nationwide must be rapidly scaled up. Parliament is in an enviable position to push this effort.

What is the way forward?

Kenya can benefit from lessons learnt and best practices, both at home and abroad, which can jumpstart the process of accelerating progress in improving maternal health in the remaining period to 2015. Four such lessons learnt are summarized below.

1. It is generally agreed that MDGs are inter-related; consequently, achievement of MDG5 is closely tied to the progress made in several other goals, especially Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education; Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women; and Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. There is accumulating evidence that the impacts of the AIDS epidemic are a strong counter force to efforts to lower maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa[ix]. High rates of HIV infection and AIDS-related illness among pregnant women will continue to contribute to higher rates of maternal mortality, unless current AIDS prevention and treatment programmes can be sustained and expanded. In many parts of the country food insecurity poses a serious challenge to the achievement of universal access to HIV treatment in Kenya (MDG Target 6b), the indicator (6.5) for which is the proportion of the population with advanced HIV infection with access to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

2. To accelerate progress on achievement of health related MDG including MDG5 requires not only a strengthened, but a radically transformed health system[x] Provision of reproductive health services (including maternal health care) cannot be considered in isolation, and generally, these services are strong where the health sector is strong, and vice versa. Service provision is one of the essential functions of a health system, and effective service provision can only take place where there is adequate infrastructure and human and material resources, which in turn require adequate financial allocation and sound management. In 2001, African countries pledged at Abuja to increase allocation to the health sector up to 15% of government expenditure. This was once again repeated in the African Union Summit in Kampala, 19 to 27 July 2010, where African leaders (including Kenyan), pledged to invest more in community health workers and re-committed themselves (yet again) to meeting the Abuja target. In the meantime, national budgetary allocations to health remain far below this target. For example, for the fiscal year 2010-11 Kenya allocated just about 5.5 percent of the total Government expenditure to the ministries of Medical Services and Public Health and Sanitation, a level of investment that clearly does not demonstrate high prioritization among the national priorities, of health care including prevention and reduction of maternal deaths.

3. In order to accelerate progress on achieving MDG5, emphasis ought to be on sustainable high impact interventions, which should incorporate strengthening community partnerships and initiatives that aim to empower women. These high impact interventions include access to skilled attendance at delivery; emergency obstetric and post abortion care; functional referral systems; and a functional interface between the community and health facilities. Countrywide expansion of health outlets staffed by adequately trained health service providers is critical to effective implementation of these interventions.

4. To have an impact on MDG indicators, interventions must target populations with the most need. As reviewed above, most reproductive health indicators portray big disparities between the poor and the better off with respect to access to health care services and health status. Generally, the poor lack access to health care in terms of availability, affordability, and acceptability. Hence, for interventions to achieve the intended impact they must target populations with the most need, in most cases these include urban and rural poor, the “hard to reach” groups and people with disabilities. Others ‘hard to reach’ are adolescents and youth, especially those out of school, migrant workers in industries and farms, internally displaced persons and refugees. These ‘marginalised’ sections of the population are frequently under-served by health services, in a large part because of poverty, as well as difficulties in accessing static health institutions, but most importantly, because their peculiar health needs are not adequately addressed in the planning of health services. Hopefully this may change in the near future under devolved county governments?


From the evidence reviwed above it is obvious that a lot remains to be done if Kenya is to get anywhere close to attaining the targets set for MDG5. There are areas where some progress has been observed, notably the recent increase in CPR, which, if sustained, may just make it close to target, particularly if the gaps in unmet need for family planning are addressed. Also, there are encouraging trends with regard to adolescent birth rate and antenatal care coverage which can be built upon. Otherwise the progress has been inadequate in almost all other indicators.  As stated above, we have the knowledge of the causes of maternal deaths, and how they can be prevented. We know what interventions work and which do not; what appears to be the main barrier is the lack of commitment to act; to prioritize reduction of maternal mortality, and to reflect this in resource allocations to the health sector, and to maternal health services, in particular. From available evidence it is obvious that MDG5 cannot be achieved without emphasis on equitable expansion of access to basic services for all. Finally, let me end with remarks oft-attributed to Professor Mahmoud Fathalla of Egypt[xi], “Women are not dying because of diseases we cannot treat. They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their [women’s] lives are worth saving.” When will Kenyan society decide?

Professor Japheth Mati is a former Chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Nairobi, Kenya. This article was first published on


[i] In at least 15% of pregnant women serious obstetric complication can occur that usually cannot be predicted or prevented in advance.

[ii] A skilled attendant as defined by the WHO, ICM and FIGO is “a health professional – such as a midwife, doctor, clinical officer or nurse- who has been educated and trained to proficiency in the skills needed to manage normal (uncomplicated) pregnancies, childbirth and the immediate postnatal period, and in the identification , management and referral of complications in women and newborns” (The Critical Role of the Skilled Attendant: a joint statement by WHO, ICM and FIGO. Geneva, World Health Organisation, 2004)

[iii] A maternal death was defined as any death that occurred during pregnancy or childbirth or that occurred within two months of the birth or termination of a pregnancy, even if the death was due to non-maternal causes.

[iv] Locoh, Therese. (2000). “Early Marriage And Motherhood In Sub-Saharan Africa.” WIN News.’.’ Retrieved July 7, 2006.

[vi]Pregnant women should routinely receive information on signs of pregnancy complications and be checked for them at all antenatal care visits; this should include testing for HIV. In addition, they should receive prophylactic treatment against anaemia, and malaria where this is endemic, and be encouraged to make plans for the impending birth, including where it will take place and how to get there in case of emergency.

[vii] Perinatal mortality was defined as the sum of the number of stillbirths and early (first week) neonatal deaths divided by the number of pregnancies of seven or more months’ duration, expressed per 1000.

[viii] The probability of dying within the first month of life, which includes deaths in the first week of life (newborn deaths)

[ix] Published on line April 12, 2010 DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60518-1

[x] According to the World Health Organisation a health system comprises all structures, institutions and resources that are devoted to producing actions whose primary intent is to improve health.

[xi] Past President of International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics Societies (FIGO)

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