Kenya: Pollution killing more new born babies today than before

By Gitonga Njeru

Dr. Evan Abwao is a doctor based in Nairobi. He is a Neonatologist in private practice. A Neonatologist is a Pediatrician that provides specialized care and treatment of newborns.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, Neonatal is a period starting before birth all the way to one month after birth.

Dr Abwao used to treat regular diseases related to premature births, normal birth asphyxia caused by delayed labor, or normal stillbirths. He has seen many health implications over the years change. Unfortunately, he has seen newborn babies die each year from usual complications.

But with a changing environment in Nairobi, different health conditions are now killing newborns than was the case five years ago.

He says he receives daily cases of newborns affected by air pollution that end up dying. “In recent times, diseases associated with air pollution in Nairobi are killing infants,” said Dr Abwao.

“Air pollution is a very serious problem in Nairobi. It is killing many newborn babies, even at my clinic. I do get referrals from other colleagues, unfortunately, half do not make it as their conditions are critical or chronic when they are brought.

“Their lungs cannot absolve nitric acid as they are not fully developed like those of adults. Worse still, is when they are born prematurely, and makes my work a challenge.

Dr. Abwao says that their organs are not fully developed and many contain levels reaching more than 10 milligrams of the compound. “This is very serious”, he says.

He says that he receives ten such cases on a given day.

“Some of the cases of air pollution include low birth weight and preterm birth in newborns. This leads to other serious conditions such as brain damage, jaundice, blood disorders, and several types of respiratory infections which are all life-threatening”, explains Dr. Abwao.

He determines his cases by doing extensive blood tests and those of the stool and urine.
Experts say that the biggest causes of air pollution in Nairobi include, fires, road dust, fossil fuels such as charcoal, and leaking stoves from homes.

“They contain very dangerous substances when burned. Carbon monoxide formaldehyde. Carbon monoxide causes head pain, chest pain, dizziness, and vomiting. it can be fatal for newborns and I have had such cases in the recent past.

“The symptoms are like a flu and if in excess, they can kill you. That is what i see in newborns. Newborns experience ppm (parts per million) of more than 420 on their lungs, they get flu-like symptoms and after four hours, they end up dead after being brought to hospital’, says Dr. Abwao.

“Most of the allergies you see on older children, those over five years is related to air pollution such as asthma “, adds Dr. Abwao.

Dr. Abwao says that some air pollution particles are passed to the newborns through breast milk from the mother.

“Carbon Nano Particles are the most common. in lungs, livers, and brains of fetuses and newborns that we tested samples in the recent past”, Dr. Abwao says.

Sammy  Simiyu sits on the Health Committee of the Nairobi County government. He says that air pollution is very serious in Nairobi.

He gives data that shows that new laws and strategies need to be put in place to curb the problem.

According to the latest report of the State of Global Air, one million people are exposed to air pollution.

“In Kenya, 27,500 deaths each year occur as a result of air pollution. In Nairobi, there are 10 cases of mortality. Fourteen percent of children under five years die from air pollution.

“Fourteen percent of adults who are over 70 years die from air pollution. 28,000 deaths in Kenya in 2019 and 22 percent of all Neonatal deaths with Nairobi carrying a big share,” says Simiyu.