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Dr. Nelly’s journal: Kibera

BY DR. NELLY M’MBOGA
Published February 16, 2010

This series was inspired by Dr. Nelly’s experience working in Kibera slum as a consultant pediatrician with a research interest in malnutrition. The characters and events are fictional. Dr. Nelly’s work can be viewed at www.nutritionafrica.com. All Rights reserved.

Kwashiorkor takes its toll in Kibera

Our first week in Kibera was largely uneventful. The clinic did not get as busy as we had anticipated. We were told that word was still getting round, and that in time, people would come, “once they have learnt to trust us.” This lack of trust for “posh donor clinics,” we were told, was because people in the slum have become wary of scientists who exploit them. This was one of the messages that had leaked out of the film, “The Constant Gardner.” The movie was partly shot in Kibera, and some of the group actors had been sourced from the slum.

Another emerging concern was media reports that poor children (slum or orphanage children) in Africa were often used as “guinea pigs.” This later belief arose from the now famous ‘Nyumbani Children’s Home’ story, which was later highlighted in the press. According to the story, blood was often taken from the children and shipped overseas, without authorization.

We had not seen any child ill enough to require admission, or even challenge our competence. In fact, we were beginning to feel generally overstaffed when Akinyi was rushed in. Akinyi was brought by her father who seemed rather rattled by her serious condition: “Anahitaji usaidizi mara moja; ni mgonjwa saana,” he implored.

She looked severely dehydrated, pale with labored breath. The clinic suddenly became alive with activity. We had been through the drill: the first task was to put her on oxygen while another team prepared to get an intravenous line open for giving fluids and any injectable medicines that might be necessary. It is very easy to lose such a child if you delay, so we sent  the parents  out of the room so as to focus on Akinyi; another staff followed them to get the child’s history.

Next, in a warm room, we began to peal off several layers of clothes she had on, starting with a jumpsuit that had left only her face visible. Children with kwashiorkor (and the less serious form, marasmus), are often overdressed to keep them warm, shield them from prying eyes, hide their parent’s shame, or even to avoid being accused of child neglect; parents compensate by trying to draw attention away from the child.

Unclothed, Akinyi looked desperately ill: she was breathless, looked anemic, with a tinge of blue to the extremities. She was also very cold. These are signs of a collapse of the cardiovascular system. She had obvious signs of kwashiorkor- reddish thin hair, rounded cheeks (moon-face), edema of the extremities, wasted frame, enlarged parotid glands, and in spite of the dehydration, a distended abdomen, with a prominent umbilical hernia.

Akinyi had no energy and did not cry when her parents left the room. Low energy  and a depressive demeanor, with a lack of interest in the sorrounding, are some of the symptoms of  kwashiorkor.

Dr. Cecily Williams, a Jamaican doctor of British descent discovered kwashiorkor while working in Ghana. The disease derives its name  from the Gha language of Ghana, meaning “the deposed child.” It is caused by lack of protein (and micro-nutrients, including immune boosting proteins) available in mother’s milk.

Since the 1930s, it has proved difficult to find a suitable replacement weaning diet across Africa, because  protein malnutrition has become an endemic problem, which is passed from generation to generation, as milk intolerance. Many people, for example, are unable to digest a cow’s milk (and other animals’ milk in general) because of lactose (and cow’s milk protein) intolerance. This runs in families. Children borne in such families therefore cannot healthfully be weaned on a cow’s milk, leaving porridge from maize or cassava, as the only viable alternative. Both are poor sources of essential nutrients, including amino acids, the building blocks of body protein and worsens the problem. Indeed, to support this view, Akinyi’s mother had a six moth old healthy looking baby boy, who was now happily breast feeding, oblivious of the battle for life his sibling was waging.

In the meantime, Akinyi’s color and circulation seemed to be improving as the reviving fluids coursed through her veins. Her history revealed that she had arrived from Western Kenya three weeks earlier. At the time, she was not as ill as she now was. She developed a fever two weeks later, and her condition had been steadily worsening. Akinyi had gone to a dispensary, where she was treated for malaria, pneumonia and worms, among other things. The fever had improved a bit, but Akinyi kept vomiting and having diarrhea. She could not retain any fluids, or food for the past three days, and her parents returned her to the dispensary the previous day for a review. Akinyi received an injection and her medicines were changed. Although the fever had now settled, she was getting weaker and weaker. Akinyi’s hstory was typical of what happens to many weaning children across Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in communities where maize (or cassava) is the dietary staple.

Maize is a poor source of B vitamins, especially niacin (vitamin B3), and essential amino acids, (especially tryptophan), which although present, are tightly bound and not available for absorption. Cultures that have thrived better on maize such as Mexicans who subsist on tortillas, have learned to process maize in lime, prior to cooking. The alkalinization process helps break the strong bonds, making the grain easy to absorb. The Xhosa of South Africa, for example,  improve the availability of micro-nutrients from a maize diet, by fermenting the flour for a couple of days before cooking it.

In Kenya, when the British entrenched maize in the diet, they went to great lengths to discourage traditional cuisines such as the fermentation of porridge as “primitive.” Maize came hand in hand with the diesel grinding mill, which facilitated milling, making maize flour readily available to boarding schools, urban dwellers, prisoners, and training colleges. The introduction of hybrid maize saw a gradual decline of other traditional crops, especially in places such as Western Kenya where it is widely grown. Hybrid maize is nutritionally inferior to its native form. For example, its  pigmented varieties are richer in beta-carotene, the pro-vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is a common cause of prolonged diarrhea, among other serious developmental problems, including night blindness, and a weakening of the immune system.

The paradox inherent in treating kwashiorkor therefore lies in the fact even when other high quality dietary proteins are availed in the diet, the problem worsens; this is because of lack of other necessary micro-nutrients. Mothers have therefore learnt from experience not to give milk, or even eggs. But when they go to the hospital, they are often encouraged to increase proteins in the diet, without catering for the micro-nutrient needs. This is why children from maize or cassava eating regions dominate malnutrition wards all over Kenya. Akinyi therefore fits the Kenyan stereotype.

Akinyi’s nutrition history was also predictable because she kept throwing up any food we gave her, especially protein; the diarrhea seemed to increase as more protein was included in the diet. In fact, the mother was very categorical: “Tangu tutoke nyumbani, kuhara imezidi (since we came from home, the diarrhoe has increased).”

Alikuwa anakula nini nyumbani? (What did she used to eat at home?)

Uji tu. Anakataa chakula yengine. Wakati tulienda kwa clinic, sister alituambia tumpatie maziwa na mayayi. Lakini tu kimpatia ndio anahara zaidi na kutapika.”(Just porridge. She refuses other foods. When we took her to the clinic, sister (the nurse) advised us to give her milk and eggs. But when we do, the diarrhea and vomiting increase).

I have heard a variation of the above conversation so many times as a pediatrician. As a post-graduate student, I studied diarrhea extensively. The findings were stunning: of the children with persistent diarrhea admitted to the emergency ward at Kenyatta National Hospital, we observed that those with protein malnutrition kept coming back for readmission, until they succumbed.

In part, this is what inspired me to study the subject further. The realization that maize was at the heart of our endemic protein malnutrition, both in children and adults (maize causes the disease pellagra in adults) took many years of study to actualize. Although a poor source of essential nutrients, maize has many other popular uses in industry, including manufacturing of starch and feeding cattle, among others. But maize’s history, geography, politics, and economics has proven that it is also a tool of imperialism. As evident in Akinyi’s case, the grain gradually weakens people’s immune systems, making them vulnerable to many diseases and exploitation. This is why Kenya’s (and Africa’s) poverty map closely mirrors that of maize (cassava) endemicity.

A deficiency of niacin in the diet gradually weakens all the body’s systems, by blocking major physiologic reactions, because products of niacin metabolism are central to very complex energy and protein reactions. Niacin is so crucial to the body that nature allows it to be made in the body. For example, in a healthy person, dietary tryptophan is converted in the body to niacin co-enzymes NAD and NADP. These conversions are facilitated by the availability of some B vitamins, including niacin, iron, and energy. These co-enzymes are central to energy generation throughout the body, and extreme deficiency is incompatible with life. Tryptophan is also converted in the body to 5-hydroxytryptamin, also known as serotonin. Serotonin is an important nuero-transmitter both for the brain and the digestive system. It modulates many functions in the body, including appetite, sleep, mood, muscle movements and even memory and learning. In children under five years, serotonin is crucial to optimum brain development. There are many other neuro-transmitter disorders related to maize and psychological health.

Protein malnutrition in children is damaging to future learning, innovation, and even psycho-social health, among other issues. The same is true for the optimum development of the immune system, although the latter peaks during adolescent years. Nutritionally acquired immune deficiency syndrome (NAIDS) in part explains the high HIV burden among poor people; the virus is opportunistic to the weakened immune systems.

Niacin’s role in the immune system is varied and complex. Those from Western Kenya, especially child-bearing women might know somebody who was put on iron to treat anemia, but they were unable to tolerate it. There is a causal relationship between niacin deficiency, and the incapacity of the body to utilize iron, so it is deposited in the tissues instead. The syndrome of Bantu siderosis (iron is deposited in the body tissues, especially the liver), once thought to be due to excess iron imbibed by men taking alcohol from iron-containers has been documented in non-alcoholics, and even in non-alcohol drinking women.

Niacin deficiency has also been documented in the breast milk of Bantu mothers on a maize diet. This means that in maize staple areas, niacin deficiency is passed from mother to child through breast milk. A child with kwashiorkor therefore should not be given iron, before control of the malnutrition and any infections is well under way (fluids rich in iron are a good medium for germs to thrive in). Both niacin and iron deficiencies worsen the lactose intolerance that is rampant across Africa. Weaning such a child on cow’s milk or formula sets them on a path to more protein malnutrition, unless any deficient micro-nutrients are replaced concurrently.

From the above, it can be seen that endemic malnutrition is a complex problem that poor parents cannot address without assistance. If left untreated, survivors are handicapped in diverse ways as they enter adulthood. Problems like Alzheimer’s disease, and premature dementia are increasing in the community because of endemic malnutrition. In Egypt, a community study has demonstrated a link between enlargement of the parotid glands and endemic pellagra.

Diarrhea and or headache and skin rashes are some of the earliest symptoms of classic pellagra in adults: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia and death compose the 4 Ds of classic pellagra. General malaise, vomiting, lack of energy, muscle wasting, lack of appetite, depressed mood, lack of sleep etc are also common in adults. In children, diarrhea and or vomiting, apathy, lack of energy, misery, (enlarged parotid glands occur in some cases) oedema and anemia are common. Edema often masks the extreme muscle wasting that can be quite striking (some parents have been known to mistake the rounded chicks for “health”). The edema has many causes, including electrolyte imbalance (pseudo-hyponatreamia i.e low blood sodium is common; mechanisms are discussed elsewhere), protein deficiency, hormonal imbalance, a weakened heart muscle are considered contributors. Because of a weakened immune system, these children often harbor ‘silent infections;’ pneumonia is common, as is sub clinical malaria. Children from Western Kenya must be treated for malaria even if they have no fever, concurrent to the treatment of the protein malnutrition.

Since treatment of kwashiorkor appears to be complex, it would appear therefore that the most cost effective way to reduce disease in communities is to tame malnutrition at community level. If kwashiorkor and pellagra are such serious illnesses, why have Africans embraced maize as their dietary staple? More importantly, if the problem has been with us for such a long time, why hasn’t a preventive policy been put in place?

Maize was the dietary staple of African slaves during their journeys, and wherever they settled. Contemporary black Americans revere maize as “the food of their forefathers.” So what efforts have been made to address the problem? Why have the efforts failed? Who benefits from African children’s malnutrition?

Dr. Nelly’s Journal continues next week.


Reach Dr. Nelly M’mboga at dr_nelly@hotmail.com

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