January 16, 2015


Cancer is number three on the list of causes for death in Kenya. Practitioners at leading hospitals say they are ill-equipped to handle it.

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Cancer is number three on the list of causes for death in Kenya

Cancer is number three on the list of causes for death in Kenya

Cancer is now the number three cause of death in Kenya, after infectious and cardiovascular diseases. However, doctors at Kenya’s main public referral hospital, the Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), say that the disease is the number one killer at the facility.

According to statistics, there are 39,000 new cases of cancer each year in Kenya with more than 27,000 deaths per year approximately. Cancer accounts for up to 18,000 deaths annually, and up to 60% of those who die are in the most productive years of their lives.

It is reported that 30% of cancers are curable if detected early; 30% of cancers are treatable with prolonged survival if detected early; 30% of cancer patients can be provided with adequate symptom management and palliative care.

In Kenya, oesophagus cancer, prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, liver and stomach cancer are the top 5 most common in men while breast and cervical cancer are the most common cancers among women, with incidence rates of about 19% and 10% respectively.


Unfortunately, Kenya lacks the facilities needed to attend to cancer patients and especially in the public health sector, which is frequented by majority of citizens who cannot afford private hospitals.

The country has only four radiation centers (KNH, MP Shah, Nairobi Hospital, Aga Khan) with all of them located in Nairobi and considering that the last three hospitals are private, it leaves the public sector with only one radiation center, which has only two radiology (RT) machines.

As far as the Human Capacity for Cancer Treatment in the public sector is concerned, the country has only; four radiation oncologists, six medical oncologists, four pediatric oncologists, five radiation therapy technologists, three oncology nurses and two medical physicists.

A recent story by Pauline Kairu, which ran in the Nation Newspaper, painted a grim picture of the cancer catastrophe in the country, revealing that dozens of desperate cancer patients from across the nation flock the waiting room of the cancer unit in KNH, hoping for a chance to get medical attention, yet majority will never get a chance to go through radiotherapy as patients can wait up to one year for their turn, simply because the strained facilities at the hospital will not allow it.

Medics at the facility reveal that they can only handle 30 per cent of all the patients needing treatment at the moment and the rest have to wait until 2016.

“We have more than 1,000 patients waiting in the queue to be treated in 2016 because they cannot afford treatment outside KNH. Unfortunately because of the lack or facilities, those who would have been lucky to be treated at stage two of the disease will be at stage four (last stage of cancer) by the time they are scheduled for radiotherapy,” says Dr Najmu Adamali, a radiologist at Cancer Care Kenya and tutor at the KNH radiology Centre is quoted by the Nation.

The better equipped private health facilities remain a farfetched dream to majority of the patients as they cannot afford the charges, which range between Sh5, 000 and Sh10, 000 per session.

The aftermath is that some die while still waiting in line at the ever crowded KNH.

It’s a depressing situation that begs the question; where exactly has the government set its priorities?

In his manifesto, President Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledged that “every Kenyan should have access to high quality healthcare” and he said that his government will aim to make Kenya an international medical hub.

While I acknowledge that the president has at least honored one of his pledges by providing free maternity for women, there is more to be done in the health sector. The unfortunate situation is that the health sector is now devolved and remains a function of the county governments, a move that sunk the sector in a much dire situation than it was initially.

Most counties have witnessed a massive exodus of medics who have resigned on grounds of lack of pay and lack of proper facilities and infrastructure in their respective hospitals, which incapacitates them from doing their work.

“We are paid to save lives and any human being will be depressed to see patients dying yet there is nothing you can do for them. Even if you have all the knowledge in the world but you don’t have the facilities including the most basic supplies, you cannot do much and it’s demoralizing and psychologically depressing when people are always dying in your hands,” said one doctor who recently resigned from Machakos County.


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