Perceptions of childhood undernutrition among rural households on the Kenyan coast - a qualitative study

Muraya KW, Jones C, Berkley JA, Molyneux S
BMC Public Health. 2016;16

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BACKGROUND: Nutrition plays an important role in child survival and development. Treatment action in the management of child health and nutrition is influenced by perceptions of illness, and gender plays an important role. However, little is known about if and how moderate undernutrition is recognised among lay populations, or how local social norms and intra-household dynamics affect decisions to seek biomedical assistance for nutritional concerns. In this paper we describe how childhood nutritional problems are recognised and understood within rural households. We demonstrate how context influences local constructs of 'normal', and suggest the centrality of gender in the management of child health and nutrition in our research context. METHODS: This qualitative study was undertaken in Kilifi County on the Kenyan Coast. A set of 15 households whose children were engaged in a community-based nutrition intervention were followed up over a period of twelve months. Over a total of 54 household visits, group and individual in-depth interviews were conducted with a range of respondents, supplemented by non-participant observations. Eight in-depth interviews with community representatives were also conducted. RESULTS: Local taxonomies of childhood undernutrition were found to overlap with, but differ from, biomedical categories. In particular, moderate undernutrition was generally not recognised as a health problem requiring treatment action, but rather as routine and manageable, typically seasonal, weight-loss. Where symptoms were considered more serious and requiring remedial action, household management strategies were typically based on perceived aetiology of the illness. Additionally, gender emerged as a potentially central theme in childhood nutrition problems and related management. Women reported that they have primary responsibility for ensuring children's good health and nutritional status, and that they are often held accountable when their children are of sub-optimal health. CONCLUSION: Perceptions of child nutrition and illness and gendered roles within households influence treatment action, and engagement with nutrition interventions. Community-based nutrition interventions must recognise these complex realities.