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The kidneys play a vital role in building and maintaining a healthy body. Why are they so important and how do you ensure good kidney care?

Learning that your child may have some kind of kidney disease or malfunction can be alarming, but good kidney care starts with early detection.

Although the most common kidney diseases in children present at birth, leaving parents feeling helpless, Prof Kala of Wits University emphasises that there are also hugely preventative aspects of it.  A Joburg-based paediatric nephrologist describes it as, “devastating, but somehow not as front of mind as childhood cancer. Therefore, education about early detection and the treatment options should not be neglected.”

Observation and early detection – the basis of good kidney care

A Joburg-based mother, who was very small during her pregnancy, took her three-week-old son to her local clinic with complaints that he had not gained weight, his tummy was swollen and he was passing urine with a poor stream. Her baby was referred to the provincial hospital and, after an abdominal ultrasound, it was found that the child had obstructed kidneys. “If there wasn’t a vigilant parent and capable attending medical personnel investigating, this infection would have been in kidney-failure zone within a couple of years,” says Kala.

Why so important?

Those two bean-shaped organs on either side of your spinal cord have a pivotal role to play in maintaining your body. They help to clean the blood by removing excess fluids, salts, and waste products. Kidneys also release hormones that help regulate blood pressure, create new red blood cells and maintain calcium levels for healthy bones.

Kidneys are like the body’s rubbish collection and disposal system. Without healthy, functioning kidneys there would be fluid overload and electrolyte abnormalities, which can be life-threatening. Other complications include severe anemia, bone abnormalities and high blood pressure (which could lead to heart failure). Plus, there is also a risk of bleeding into the head, causing a stroke.

Be on the lookout

“In newborns and infants, where kidney disease is prevalent, a failure to thrive is usually evident,” says Kala. “Failure to thrive signs include poor weight gain and appetite, vomiting, a miserable mood, low- or high-blood pressure and poor urine output.

In older children, signs and symptoms of kidney problems vary. These include:

  • fever
  • swelling around the eyes, face, feet and ankles
  • burning or pain during urination
  • a significant increase in the frequency of urination
  • difficulty controlling urination (in children who are mature enough to use the toilet)
  • recurrence of night-time bed-wetting (in children who have been dry for several months)
  • blood in the urine
  • high-blood pressure.

Help is at hand

Treating the underlying condition that’s causing the kidney failure can sometimes help heal the kidneys. However, this isn’t possible if the person has lost more than 15% of their kidney function. Where a person has lost more than 15% kidney function, a kidney transplant is needed.

Kidney donation allows you to have a living donor as one healthy kidney can still keep the donor’s body functioning well. If your child hasn’t found a living donor match, usually in the form of a close relative or friend, they will be on a waiting list to receive a kidney from a nonliving donor. In the interim your child will need to go on dialysis. Dialysis is a process that does the work of a kidney by cleaning the blood.

The Organ Donor Foundation stresses the importance of becoming a donor through its Save Seven Lives campaign, which works on the premise that one person has seven life-saving organs: one heart, two lungs, one liver, one pancreas and two kidneys.

Lucille Kemp