Babies born with low birth weight in Kenya last year were the leading cause of infant admission in health facilities. According to the 2021 Economic Survey, they accounted for 10.3 percent of all infant hospital admissions.
In 2019, low birth weight accounted for 14 percent or 9,081 hospitalisations. Low birth weight was the second leading cause of infant hospitalisation behind pneumonia which accounted for 17 percent or 11,018 of total infant hospital admissions. This was the third year in a row where low birth weight was the second cause of hospital admissions among infants.
The latest data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Economic Survey 2021 now shows that in 2020, low birth weight caused more infant admissions than pneumonia, which has been the leading cause of hospitalisations for babies.
Among children under the age of five years, low birth weight was the eighth cause of hospital admissions, accounting for 2.6 percent of all child hospitalisations that were recorded in 2020. In the previous year (2019), low birth weight had accounted for 8.1 percent of all child hospitalisations or 9,263 child hospitalisations. This was a slight reduction from the 9,727 babies under five who were hospitalised in the year 2018.
According to pediatrician Phyllis Wambui, low birth weight is one of the major complications of pregnancy. "This condition is linked to infant deaths and long-term health issues such as susceptibility to diabetes, kidney disorders, and high blood pressure," she says. This is echoed by a study that was conducted by West Virginia University and published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease. According to this study, children who are born with low birth weight are at risk of cardiovascular disease by the age of 10. "Low birth weight is associated with higher levels of bad cholesterol and lower levels of good cholesterol. At the same time, these children tend to have higher levels of triglyceride. These are triggers for heart attack, stroke, periphery artery disease, and atherosclerosis," said Dr. Amna Umer, who is a pediatric researcher at the West Virginia University's School of Medicine.
In the same vein, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), infants born weighing less than 1.50 kilograms have substantively higher mortality rates compared to infants born weighing above one and a half kilos. These infants are also likely to have higher incidents of illness in the neonatal period. The WHO states that in the majority of cases, low birth weight is caused by intrauterine growth restriction, prematurity, or a combination of both. "Low birth weight infants are about 20 times more likely to die than heavier infants," the WHO states.
Although low birth weight is caused by an interplay of factors such as hypertension, heart disease, poor nutrition, and multiple pregnancies, maternal age is one of the leading causes. "We have girls becoming mothers in their teen years. This predisposes their pregnancies to preterm deliveries, complications, and low birth weights due to their bodies' insufficiency to cope," says Dr. Wambui. She explains that a baby is considered a low-weight birth if delivered at less than 2.5 kilograms.
According to the National Council for Population and Development report on teenage pregnancies in Kenya, 379, 573 girls in Kenya - some as young as 10 years old - were pregnant or new mothers as of 2019. In the same vein, statistics from Global Childhood Kenya showed that as of 2019, Kenya had the third-highest teen pregnancy rates with 82 births per 1,000 births.