Kenyan delegation in India for lessons on vaccines, UHC

Willis Akhwale

The National Taskforce on vaccine deployment Chair Dr Willis Akhwale. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

The Ministry of Health says it has dispatched 10 officials to India, which wants to help Kenya realise its Universal Health Coverage (UHC) dream.

Kenya wants to reduce the number of people going to the Asian country for medical procedures. The delegation will also visit the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker, to learn about vaccine manufacturing.

The officials include members of the Covid-19 vaccine task force led by Dr Willis Akhwale, representatives of the Kenya Biovax Institute led by Mr Mugo Kibati and others.

“Right now we have a delegation in India, they are looking at a number of issues but we will find out all they have discussed when they return. This is just to show you that all the collaborative talks we build are ongoing and we follow up,” Health Chief Administrative Secretary Dr Rashid Amman told the Nation.

“We are looking to achieve UHC across the whole spectrum of healthcare, not just in primary healthcare but also the treatment part, and for this to happen we need to know where we are going wrong, why people are flooding to this other country like China and India and these countries make a lot of money from medical tourism.”

The officials’ visit to India comes after Health CS Mutahi Kagwe in December last year announced Kenya’s plans to set up a vaccine manufacturing plant by April this year to forestall supply shortages.

“As you already know, we currently import over 70 per cent of the country’s medical products, including vaccines and biologicals. This sometimes means that we are unable to access these essential supplies due to logistical issues, not forgetting that importation consumes a significant chunk of our health budget,” CS Kagwe said at the time.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges associated with lack of local capacity in this area.”

He said that the local manufacturing of highly specialised healthcare products by institutions such as the Kenya Biovax Institute will be a significant step to make supplies sustainable.

“The local production of human vaccines will support public healthcare programmes, national and regional economic growth [and] national security, as well as enhance the capacity to control disease outbreaks that may arise in the future,” Mr Kagwe said.

He added that the venture would kick off with a form and fill facility at the production plant at Kemsa’s new headquarters in Embakasi, Nairobi, that would help third parties put vaccines from the main manufacturers into vials before packaging them for distribution.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, in his eighth State of the Nation address in Parliament on November 30, 2021, said that after the Covid-19 experience, Kenya had realised it needed to be self-reliant regarding medicines. 

“I, therefore, directed the Ministry of Health to operationalise the company to ‘form and fill’ and [eventually manufacture] our locally produced vaccine by Easter of 2022,” the President stated.  

But Dr Amman said vaccines and supplies are not the only elephants in the room to be addressed.

“One, it seems that their quality of care is top-notch, two, it is slightly cheaper despite the fact that they spend a lot of money to go there, and three, the level of confidence that Kenyans have in our healthcare system is not … very high.”

By June 2019, India’s medical tourism was said to earn it $9 billion, nearly a third of Kenya’s annual budgetary estimates.

According to “Medical Tourism in India,” a report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce, the Asian country ranks fifth in global medical tourism.

The Global Medical Tourism Index, which ranks top medical tourism destinations, also places India fifth behind Singapore, the United Kingdom, Canada and Israel.

Kenya’s Ministry of Health revealed in 2018 that more than half of cancer patients (57.8 per cent) flock to India. Of those, 16.8 per cent sought renal disease treatment while 7.8 per cent were treated for cardiovascular diseases and skeletal disorders.

That points to India’s recent attractiveness to foreign patients.

India is popular for a variety of procedures – cancer, cosmetic, orthopaedic, cardiac, neurology and organ transplant surgery –  and provides what experts term high-quality medical and surgical treatment services.

In a past interview with the Nation, Akhil Dave, the general manager at Geetanjali Hospital in India’s Rajasthan state, explained that the Asian country’s tick goes beyond facilities to include the human element.

“What makes treatment in India unique is the human touch and care given by our doctors and paramedical [staff]. It makes us very attractive. Backed by highly skilled professionals and advanced technology, doctors and other medical experts are well trained to use the latest technology in modern medicine,” Mr Dave said.

“We do not expect you to land from Uganda or Kenya for the first time to a new culture and environment, then start looking for accommodation all by yourself when we can make it easier by ensuring that you arrive to a fully furnished house of your choice.”

This almost seamless way of handling patients is not by accident. In India, health is given priority through the training of healthcare workers.

For example, Rajasthan, one of the 28 states of India, has over 30 medical colleges. According to statistics from the state government, one of its seven districts, Udaipur, has six medical colleges, each producing about 1,000 doctors per year.

This system took a long time to build.

Dr Amman believes that like India, Kenya must have a holistic approach to healthcare because there are many elements in it. This, he said, is why the country needs to first make healthcare a calling – people should go into healthcare to help others and not just to be paid.

“Let us remove what I have seen creep into health, I call it commercialism and I think this is what is driving many people out of the country,” he said.

“People should be rewarded reasonably and adequately for their skills, expertise and services but our health workers should not be looking at money as the end point of it.

“We need to improve our public health system and develop our primary healthcare so that we drastically reduce those who are seeking the same services elsewhere out of the country.”

He added: “If you look, for example, at those going out for cancer treatment, by the time somebody has been diagnosed with cancer it is at stage four. Why should our people now go there, become impoverished only to come back with a dead body?

“It’s going to take a concerted effort to fix this.”

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