By Gitonga Njeru
Freelance Writer – Kenya
Thursday, 27 January 2011 18:26
With the flu season already here, Kenya’s porous borders are at a great risk of an outbreak of Swine Flu. Poor monitoring systems and rampant corruption of immigration officials remains an obstacle, medics worry.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the disease has so far infected over 60,000 people worldwide with 300 people killed. The first confirmed Swine Flu outbreak in Kenya was in June 2009.
“There is a worry considering that Kenya’s borders along our airports are porous. Corrupt immigration officials can easily be bribed to give medical certificates without even vaccinating or testing people,” said Evan Abwao, a Nairobi based medical practitioner.
“Another more serious issue which cannot be avoided is our geographical position. For example, our proximity to high risk countries and being a major transit point of major airlines to other countries, we have few medical attendants to deal with the high numbers of immigration.”
He added that Kenya is ranked one of the top 20 most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International, a Germany based organization. With just a bribe of just as little as US$25, one can be given a medical certificate to show that they are free from any infectious disease, he further added.
“With Neighboring Uganda in the west and Somalia in the east, Tanzania in the south, and Ethiopia in the north, there is a huge movement of livestock by herders looking for pasture for their animals. These movements go unchecked,”said Dominic Walubengo, an environmental activist with the Kenyan based Forest Action Network (FAN).
“That is never in checking most of the time and only when a threat is announced, that is when things are done right. When a risk becomes low again, authorities tend to relax like there is not tomorrow.”
Despite the vulnerability of the country, it has one of the best equipped laboratories in diagnosing the Swine Flu virus just in case of another outbreak. The laboratories are some of the best on the continent.
The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), a scientific research arm of the Kenyan government, has advanced laboratories, a scientist has said.
“The highest rating of laboratories in terms of diagnosis and scientific research capabilities are level four laboratories. We have two of them in Kenya and only three African countries have such advanced laboratories; the other two countries are Egypt and South Africa.
Hope is Still There
Our labs have the capacity to diagnose and research on hemorrhagic fevers, Rift Valley fevers, HIV, Nile Virus, and a host of other serious diseases,” said Simon Kariuki, a senior malaria researcher with KEMRI.
Despite the poor preparations by the country, the country receives annual donor cash amounting to more than US$3 billion from the Global Fund, World Bank and several other multilateral donor agencies to manage its health sector.
Osman Mohamed, aged 35, is a livestock and land owner in North Eastern Kenya but resides in Nairobi. He says that in the predominantly-Somali North Eastern region there are very few veterinary officers, and that complicates matters even more.
“If my animals get sick, there is not much attention given to them by authorities. They just have to die. It’s a sad situation but that is how it goes,” he says.
Kariuki adds that there are fears that the virus might change shape in the future, making diagnosis and treatment even more difficult not just for Kenya but other countries.
“The disease was known as SARS in 2003 when it first broke out in Asia, then bird flu. It is now swine flu. It means more investments in research initiatives which we are yet to see. There is a lot to be done. So how prepared are we as well as the rest of the world?” posed Kariuki.
Willis Ahkwale, head of the Department of Disease Control in the Kenyan Health Ministry, said that there is great need for a close cooperation between regional countries in monitoring disease.
“At times, countries cannot do it alone and teamwork is very vital. The good thing here is that we have well equipped labs to detect the virus but that is after an outbreak. Tight border controls need to be enforced by countries,” said Ahkwale
He says that the government will spend money in the near future educating the public on matters related to Swine Flu.
“There are many myths about the disease. We will spend considerable amount of money putting up posters, advertising in the newspapers as well as on TV and Radio,” said the medic.
Recent disease outbreaks in neighboring Uganda on hemorrhagic fever related ailments have put the government on high alert according to Ahkwale.
He adds that in the coming year, more money will be invested in disease research and management based on proposals being worked on by the Health Ministry. He admits that the health sector needs a lot of drastic changes.