As at September 2018 Kenya registered the highest number of cancer deaths in East Africa compared to neighbors, Uganda and Tanzania. This is according to a World Health Organization (WHO) Globocan report that revealed cancer kills 32, 987 Kenyans a year compared to Tanzania and Uganda with 28, 610 and 21, 829 cases respectively. It is this mind-boggling figures and the fact that cancer rates are expected to double by 2026 that really hammers home that cancer is indeed a national crisis.
In one month alone, we’ve lost three prominent figures to the disease; Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore, Industrious Kibra MP Ken Okoth and trailblazing Bomet Governor Joyce Laboso. Cancer isn’t the only common denominator as these three figures all went to seek treatment abroad and were either victims of late diagnosis or misdiagnosis. This just mirrors a larger problem that is facing a lot of Kenyans who sadly lack the means to fight this disease as these three great leaders attempted.
While leaders have the privilege of medical insurance that gives them access to the best facilities globally and medical practitioners, most Kenyans rely on NHIF to cater to their medical expenses in public medical facilities. Even then, some are denied access to medical care as was the case of the late Esther Wambui whose story epitomized a broken healthcare system that needs to be fixed urgently. A video surfaced online of her sister crying in desperation after Kenyatta National hospital turned them away after they were unable raise Ksh 1, 950. It took the intervention of well-wishers for her to be admitted at the referral hospital but sadly Esther died on July 15th 2019 only for her family to deal with the sad reality of an outstanding hospital bill to be able to lay her to rest.
This and many other similar cases are just a drop in the ocean of problems that face the public health sector. In an article on the Standard published in May this year, cancer experts blamed the country’s unreliable referral system that has had a hand in patients being presented to them when they are already at advanced stages.
One wonders whether universal healthcare is just another pipe dream as families dealing with the loss of their loved ones are left bankrupt and stripped off of their dignity. There should be a call to audit public medical facilities and give the medical sector an overhaul. Late diagnosis brings to fore the need for countrywide sensitization on regular checkups for early detection and treatment to save more lives.
The high cost of treatment and drugs calls for the intervention of Parliament to pass legislation that will make cancer screening, treatment and prescription free to patients to make these services available to all regardless of their classes. The budget allocation to healthcare needs to be considered to put to an end matters of under-equipped and understaffed hospitals that crumble under the pressure of legions of patients. Lawmakers have a hand in setting regulations in the health, agriculture, licensing and regulation boards; all of which have a hand in the well-being of Kenyans. These conversations should be kept alive during and after our mourning because we’re losing too many people for us to allow it to be acceptable.
A cure for cancer may be dreaming to big, but we can find lasting solutions to greatly reduce the cancer rates and deaths. It’s the least we can do to honor Ken Okoth and Joyce Laboso.