Most children, especially those under the age of five, tend to fall sick from time-to-time. This is because they have an immature immune system that makes them prone to countless infections.
It is these infections—which are mostly viral and bacterial—that end up being the cause of illnesses such as pneumonia, ear infections and colds in young kids.
Infections in children are known to be among the leading causes of infant mortality.
Therefore, infections in children is a serious and common issue, says Theobald Minani, a pharmacy student interning at Muhima Hospital.
What causes them?
Joseph Bugingo, a level 4 medical student at University of Rwanda, College of Medicine and Health Sciences, says poor hygiene is the most common cause of infections among children.
He also mentions low immunity in infants, especially those under five years of age, as another factor that makes children prone to getting infections.
“With an immature body mechanism, for instance, children usually get lower respiratory tract infections due to their narrow airways,” he says.
Egide Ahishakiye, a medical student in year four and president of University of Rwanda Student’s Surgical Society, says children under five always fall sick because they are exposed to germs (viruses or bacteria), yet haven’t built up a strong enough immune mechanism against them.
With this, he says, it’s why most young children will have 8 to 10 colds in a year.
“Some germs can stay on countertops or toys for many hours but they are usually spread in direct contact through kissing, touching or holding hands with a person who has germs. These germs can be harboured in the nose, mouth, eyes, and stool or on the skin but as children get older, they get sick less often,” he says.
Meanwhile, Ahishakiye notes that germs in the nose and throat can spread when the infected person coughs or sneezes without tissue to cover the mouth and nose.
He explains that germs can travel through air and can reach another person who is close by (less than a metre away).
These germs don’t stay in the air and don’t travel over long distances, Ahishakiye says.
He adds that the good news is that most of these infections are mild and don’t last very long.
Signs and symptoms
Bugingo says that for one to tell if a child has an infection, they can look out for symptoms such as fever and general weakness.
Other symptoms, he says, include joint and abdominal pain, headaches, weight loss, and cough, among others.
He cautions that it is not advisable to deal with symptoms as a parent by, for example, choosing to give some medications which can subside fever, because treating fever doesn’t remove the underlying cause.
This underlying infection which is causing the fever will dominate a child’s immune system if it is untreated and given wrong medications.
What parents should know
Minani says parents should be aware of children being susceptible to infections because of their immunity which is still developing.
In fact, he notes that children should be protected until they develop strong immunity, adding that parents can ensure this by availing their kids with proper nutrition for immunity development.
“Some parents do not take this into account, especially where the baby is put on formula milk instead of breast milk before a period of two years,” he says.
Minani says parents ought to be careful when it comes to the hygiene of their children, and that this is more common in rural areas where parents rarely observe hygiene.
Even though children are susceptible to infections, he says being exposed to unhygienic environments increases their risk of developing different types of illnesses than those who are not exposed.
“When it comes to health, we advise parents to always maintain good hygiene, especially during crucial times, like while preparing the baby’s food and before breastfeeding, among others,” he says.
Another important aspect is that parents shouldn’t at any point use traditional herbs or even take their children to traditional healers, Minani adds.
He notes that in rural areas, some parents still use and depend on traditional medicines with no dose specification. This, he explains, provokes the risk of resistance when a child is, for example, treated again with modern medicine while infected.
“Parents should be aware of this serious problem they are causing to their young ones. Also, I think there is need for them to be educated to avoid such cases,” he says
Augustin Manirakiza, the vice president of Rwanda Pharmaceutical Students’ Association (RPSA), says parents should ensure that every child goes for all vaccinations at every stage of growth as recommended by World Health Organisation (WHO).
In agreement with Minani’s sentiments, Manirakiza says hygiene is very important to prevent diseases spread by germs between parents and children, or anyone else. He, however, notes that this is very crucial for the mother, especially before and after nursing and feeding the child.
He says it’s also important for a parent to check on the child every day, such that when the child feels unwell, they can consult health professionals to get treatment in good time.
He further points out that proper breastfeeding in the first six months of the child’s life before being introduced to solid foods is important.
“This is so because during this time, it’s a good period for growth to take place, because it is when many organs of the body grow and the baby learns different things,” he says.
Additionally, he says every child must take all vaccines, noting that this step, coupled with hygiene, can save millions of lives.
Bugingo also says parents must ensure a balanced diet containing fruits and vegetables, which enhances their children’s body immunity.
“Parents should avoid exposing their children to places with a high risk of contamination. They should follow up closely and ensure that their children don’t play with contaminated things, this is important.”
Experts say vaccination, good nutrition, healthy environment, medicines, and access to healthcare services are some of the prevention measures to adopt when it comes to dealing with children’s infections.
“Hygiene and vaccination is the first measure when it comes to the prevention of infections among children,” says Ahishakiye.
He says that vaccination is cheap and important in preventing infections such as hepatitis B, measles and tuberculosis.
“So for this reason, it’s important for all parents to make sure they immunise their children against all of these health conditions,” he adds.
Bugingo notes that high risk areas prone to contamination, such as markets, where chances of getting diseases such as TB are high, should be avoided altogether.
Parents should ensure they have a place with water and soap for hand-washing in their household area that all family members can easily access, especially the children. This can help prevent infections that come as a result of poor hygiene.
Theobald Minani, Intern — Muhima Hospital
Poor hygiene and malnutrition have long-term consequences for the child, including intellectual and physical ailments. It’s important for parents to ensure they maintain good hygiene always.
Egide Ahishakiye, Medical student
Washing children’s hands with running water and soap is important, especially after they have been playing in the dirt or with animals, as it also helps keep skin infections at bay.
Augustin Manirakiza, Vice president — Rwanda Pharmaceutical Student’s Association
Special care should be taken while preparing children’s food. For instance, children’s food should be freshly made and eaten immediately.
Bonheur Muvandimwe, Nutritionist studentFollow Lydia_AtienoM