KIRUKU: East Africa is in ICU; the collapsed health sector says it all

Doctors strike

The East African Community Health and Scientific Conference planned for later this month has come at a time when the region is grappling with critical health issues that need urgent intervention.

Kenyans have gone through untold suffering after doctors went on strike over a pay dispute with the government. The strike, now in its fourth month, has paralysed services in public hospitals. Patients have been forced to turn to private hospitals, with those who cannot afford the high cost of medical services in such hospitals being left to stare death in the face.

Nurses and clinical officers have also joined their colleagues and taken to the streets over pay disputes with their employer, completely grounding the health sector.

Corruption in the health sector is rife, yet some of those accused of corrupt dealings in the ministry still hold public office. This is a clear show of lack of commitment by the Kenya government in fighting cartels in the health sector.

It is unfortunate that more than 50 years after independence, citizens in the region still have to seek medical attention in India and elsewhere around the world, partly due to unavailability of equipment in local hospitals as well as understaffing. Despite the region spending huge amounts of money in the training of doctors, brain drain has ensured most of our health personnel leave the region to seek greener pastures in countries outside the region.

It is unfortunate that the greatest sufferers during industrial action are the poor, marginalised and rural people. Pregnant women, children, and critically-ill patients whose medical conditions require a measure of urgency bear the brunt of industrial action.

It is insensitive on the part of the government to leave poor citizens to suffer over issues that should have been resolved long before they arose. The government should initiate legal dispute resolution mechanisms to deal with pay disputes.

Still, the region is grappling with the HIV pandemic among the youth and married couples. New trends in HIV infections are emerging: Previously, HIV infections rates were highest among young people but the region is now witnessing a rise in infections among persons aged 50 years and above.

If the region will win the war against the pandemic, then the adverse effects of antiretroviral drugs in the market today – which are posing a great threat to the fight against the pandemic – must be dealt with.

The region should borrow a leaf from Ethiopia, which is regarded as a model in the fight against HIV and the disease, Aids. The number of new infections in Ethiopia decreased by 90 per cent between 2001 and 2011, the highest drop rate ever witnessed in the continent. During the same time, the number of people who died of Aids-related complications dropped by more than half.

Ethiopia has ensured that ARV drugs are distributed throughout the country free of charge. In remote villages, trained medical staff ensure HIV patients takes their medication. Ethiopia had the highest number of health clinics offering care and support to pregnant women to prevent mother-to-child transmissions across Africa during the same period.

Although East African countries are making commendable progress in the fight against HIV/Aids, access to ARV drugs and to health facilities offering care and support to persons living with HIV, especially in rural areas, remains a big challenge.

Challenges of reproductive health among pregnant women, new-born children and adolescents, as well as elderly persons, continue to derail the region in its quest to achieve universal healthcare among citizens.

As the conference focuses on ways of managing recurrent epidemics including means of strengthening preparedness and control of epidemics in East Africa, it will also be prudent to pay attention to non-communicable diseases in the region.

Cancer is a menace that is now the third highest cause of morbidity across the EAC partner states, after infectious and cardiovascular diseases. Globally, cancer is killing more people than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined. It is therefore critical to hold serious deliberations on its prevention, treatment and management.

Ill-health impairs productivity, hinders job prospects and adversely affects human capital development. Investing in health as a region does not only save lives, it is also a crucial investment in the wider economy.

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Story By Anne Kiruku
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