KENYA: Feature - Hope for abandoned babies
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
NAIROBI, 5 June (PLUSNEWS) - "We have noticed a big increase in the abandonment of babies since the new year," says Clive Beckenham, the co-director of the New Life Home Trust for abandoned, orphaned and HIV-positive babies in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Last week alone, the home was contacted by two hospitals with 11 unwanted babies needing homes.
The reasons are many and differ from region to region. Some, particularly in western Kenya, are abandoned because they were born as a result of incest or rape, others because they have a physical disability or are believed to be HIV-positive, and the vast majority because their mothers are too young or too poor to cope.
"It's getting worse again. Why we don't know, we can only guess. Maybe it's because of the new government tightening up on corruption and illegality," says Beckenham. "We suspect it is being reflected in clinics and hospitals," he says, as the illicit "trade in selling babies" to adoption agencies is affected.
Some of the children are abandoned in hospitals or close to police stations, while many - about one in nine at the home - are left to die in pit latrines, rubbish tips or sewers.
Even if a mother has second thoughts later on and considers rescuing her child, she is deterred by the threat of being sent to prison for child abandonment.
"The fathers don't feature at all," says Beckenham. "Many of the children are the result of one-night-stands."
Amanda was found newborn in a pit-latrine, Greg was found at a bus stop, Cyrus was left in a hospital for nine months where he became ill from malnutrition and neglect, and Ernest was found covered with insects eating away at his face, chest and right arm beside a latrine.
These are the lucky ones, along with 44 others, who were found and are being looked after in the New Life home.
Most of them are boys (currently 38), as girls are often considered "cheaper" to hold on to. "The boys need to be schooled while girls don't, a boy needs to inherit while girls don't, girls can also be prostituted, they can work young, you can get a dowry for them," says Mary, the home's matron and co-director.
They arrive in different states of health, depending on how quickly they were found. Many who are abandoned in hospitals up-country, which lack resources, staff, incubators and equipment, are in bad shape, says Mary. "They often arrive malnourished. And if the nurses know they are HIV-positive, they neglect them."
One baby brought to the home had been left, forgotten, in a hospital incubator. "His weight was down to one kilo, the sister in charge didn't even know he was there," said Mary. Today, he weighs 2.4 kg.
Two others, both of whom died, were brought to the home weighing only 800 grammes each. "I knew one of them was going to die, so I wrapped him up, put him in an incubator and waited with him, stroking his hand until he died," she said. "Every child deserves to be loved."
Of a total of 435 babies brought to the home, only 34 have died.
The lucky ones, those who are rescued early enough, manage to thrive. A combination of good food, attention, medical care and a clean environment means that even those born HIV-positive can grow up to lead healthy, normal lives.
While children are born with antibodies from their mothers, which test positive for HIV if the mother is positive, within a year to 18 months, each child naturally begins to produce its own antibodies.
If a child still tests HIV-antibody-positive by 18 months, then he or she is considered to be HIV-infected or virus-positive, and needs to be treated with antiretrovirals. But most babies in the home revert to being negative (sero-revert) once they produce their own antibodies. "They say about 60-70 percent of children turn negative with good conditions. Here we have a rate of over 90 percent," says Mary.
"We do everything in our power to create the conditions to help the children turn negative," says Clive. Of the 435 children looked after in the home since 1994, 168 were born HIV-positive. A year later only 18 remained so.
"The care helps them to become negative, and even if they remain positive, it helps them to survive," says Mary. Not only that, but over 80 percent of the children are adopted from the home - mostly by Kenyans - thus leaving more space for other abandoned babies to be nurtured back to good health.