There is no excuse for the negligence of cancer treatment in this country

The radiotherapy centre at the Kenyatta National Hospital where the only two machines broke down on March 16, 2015. PHOTO | BILLY MUTAI |

What you need to know:

  • Development is not about tall buildings, guns and military regalia, railways, roads, and airports. It is fundamentally about the quality of life that citizens live.
  • So I ask myself: why does a country of 41 million Africans, and middle income economy to boot, have only two machines for the treatment of a serious illness which is wiping out its people, including a labour force it cannot afford to lose?
  • With so many lives at risk, so many people going through untold suffering, not knowing whether they will see the coming day, one would have thought that someone in government would be held to account.

From Monday, March 16, the Kenyan public healthcare system stopped radiotherapy for cancer patients. Radiotherapy is only available in Nairobi and public hospitals have only two machines, both at the Kenyatta National Hospital.

These are overworked because cancer patients pour in from all corners of the country, everyday.

Why does a country which is building a Sh300 billion railway have only two cancer treatment machines? Each costs about Sh100 million, probably even Sh200 million, which is chickenfeed.

That is probably what the average government ministry wastes on junkets, tea, and flowers in a couple of months.

Now, for the avoidance of doubt, we have a cancer epidemic in our midst. The figures I have seen tend to suggest that 40,000 cases are diagnosed every year and as many as 27,000 patients die each year.

Many of these good people cannot afford treatment in private hospitals, where a session of radiotherapy is Sh10,000 (so if you need 25 sessions, that is Sh250,000). So the majority of them are queued at Kenyatta, waiting to go through those two life-saving machines, where they pay only Sh500.

ONLY TWO MACHINES

So I ask myself: why does a country of 41 million Africans, and middle income economy to boot, have only two machines for the treatment of a serious illness which is wiping out its people, including a labour force it cannot afford to lose?

What has driven me to despair, however, is the way the Ministry of Health responded to a campaign by the Daily Nation for the government to do something to save those poor patients who are dying on the waiting list.

The Ministry of Health announced a Sh38 billion plan to lease medical equipment from GE and distribute it to 94 hospitals. At the time, the Health Ministry said among those machines will be those used in the treatment of cancer.

It does not. There is radiology equipment, which is used for diagnosis, but there appears to be none for treatment. Why were these machines not included in that order for equipment? Did the people who were buying not know that there is a big cancer crisis?

So I ask myself, what would be the point of pouring money into the diagnosis but not the treatment of a disease?

I recently went to a hospital in the counties and I was at a loss why it was called a hospital: filthy, broken down equipment, rude staff, and hordes of Kenyans in various stages of dying.

When your idea of a hospital is Aga Khan, Nairobi, Gertrude’s, and all these other fancy city hospitals, you forget that there are the other 40 million Kenyans who are attended to in county hospitals, which are quite different.

So I ask myself: if the majority of the people get treatment in these county hospitals, why aren’t we investing in them and ensuring that they are getting good care in a clean and friendly environment?

The Ministry of Health has a strategy to deal with cancer with emphasis on such matters as prevention (40 per cent of cancer cases can be prevented through lifestyle changes and other interventions), early detection, diagnosis, and treatment.

QUALITY OF LIFE

Is there money in the budget for the implementation of this strategy? How much of it is implemented and why are cancer cases on the rise?

Development is not about tall buildings, guns and military regalia, railways, roads, and airports. It is fundamentally about the quality of life that citizens live.

The tragedy of Kenya is that there are a million people who live a good life and 40 million who, metaphorically, are sitting quietly in their darkened huts, waiting to die.

With so many lives at risk, so many people going through untold suffering, not knowing whether they will see the coming day, one would have thought that someone in government would be held to account.

I have been told, in the course of writing this column, that now there is a plan by the government to set up four cancer treatment centres, each at a cost of Sh1 billion, spread across the country.

I do not know when these centres will start taking patients, but I am sure it will be welcome news for thousands of patients now on the two-year waiting list at Kenyatta National Hospital.

And so I ask myself: why is it so hard for these people to do the right thing without public pressure?

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