Published On: Tue, Dec 8th, 2020

In Kenya, COVID-19’s rural spread strains creaky healthcare

Nearly three quarters of Kenya’s intensive care unit (ICU) beds are in the two largest cities, Nairobi and Mombasa.

Yet the new coronavirus is spreading into rural areas where the public health system is creaking and scarce ICU units are full and turning patients away, medics round the nation told Reuters.

Christmas travel may worsen the problem – and not just in Kenya.

“That is our biggest fear now,” said John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a branch of the African Union bloc.

“During the holiday season, there will be a tendency for large movement from capital cities to villages, remote areas, for people to connect with families. That might drive the pandemic,” he told a news conference from Ethiopia this week.\

Africa is recording 10,000-12,000 cases daily, moving toward a July peak of 14,000, after most governments eased lockdowns that curbed the disease but decimated jobs.

After measures were softened, Kenya had record daily cases and deaths in November, taking the totals to nearly 90,000 infections and 1,500 fatalities here.

Experts say the real tally is much higher due to inadequate testing and a policy of only counting hospital deaths.

One of those was Justus Murunga, a member of parliament who died on Nov. 14 after developing breathing problems on a visit to his rural home in the Kagamega area of rural west Kenya.

When he arrived at the nearest public hospital, he was turned away because there was no oxygen.

At a private hospital, a 20-minute drive further, medics could not resuscitate him, the Nation newspaper reported.

“Had our hospital been well equipped, our brother could have been saved,” his brother Henry Washiswa was quoted as saying.

AIRLIFTS FOR POLITICIANS?

Fellow legislators suggested creating a helicopter service for politicians, drawing outrage on social media.

Kenya’s 51 million people have only 537 ICU beds and 256 ventilators, according to a July 2020 study.

“We will have a high mortality rate in the rural areas,” Chibanzi Mwachonda, secretary-general of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union, told Reuters.

“Ambulances don’t have fuel, there’s a lack of reagents for testing, contract tracing is weak and referral hospitals are overburdened,” added Mwachonda, whose union is threatening to strike.

The health ministry did not respond to requests for interviews.

In the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya’s remote north west, ICU care is a nine-hour drive away.

That has led to six COVID-19 deaths in a camp clinic due to lack of equipment like a ventilator, a doctor there told Reuters. A 40-year-old South Sudanese woman was the latest.

Sources: Reuters

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