26 March 2011

Kenya: Rush for 'Miracle Drug' Exposes Healthcare Woes


Nairobi — The fascination across East Africa with what has been described as the "miracle drug" of Loliondo in Tanzania is a sad commentary on the poor state of the healthcare system in this part of the world.

An NTV report last week painted a scene of desperation in the mountains near Arusha where hundreds of patients are waiting for treatment in a queue of vehicles that stretches tens of kilometres.

And all this in an attempt to procure a herbal remedy whose effectiveness has not been tested and which Tanzanian medical authorities have warned does not work.

Kenyans are among those who have turned to the Loliondo potion for solutions to their health problems with one report indicating that several buses that normally ply the Mombasa-Nairobi route have been diverted to offer transport to Tanzania.

This crisis should trigger debate among policy makers on the state of the health system in the country and on what solutions can be found.It is perhaps fortuitous that this crisis has emerged at a time when the budget is being put together.

The question to be confronted is whether current allocations to the health sector are sufficient to meet the needs of a growing population.

Like many other African countries Kenya relies almost entirely on Western donors to finance its efforts to deal with HIV/Aids. Every time they threaten to reduce or pull out their funds, the alarm is sounded because withdrawal of those funds would mean the collapse of the entire support system for patients now in place.

The Loliondo pilgrimage is not the first illustration of the poor state of affairs in the health system.

When a Chinese medical ship arrived in Mombasa in October 2010, the crew was surprised by the massive number of patients who turned up seeking treatment.

Many of them were suffering from minor ailments that are easily treatable while numerous others had conditions that can be averted using early intervention measures such as vaccination.

The government should start by acknowledging that there is a major crisis in the health system and make a frank assessment of the options.

This will involve difficult choices, including determining what the right balance is between spending on areas such as infrastructure and on investment in social services.

One of the solutions that has been proffered is a comprehensive national insurance system that would offer affordable medical care to the public.

The idea clearly has its merits. It makes sense for those earning the most to pay higher taxes to afford relief to the less fortunate in society.

It is also hard to argue against the concept of extending health care to as many people as possible.

But there are also significant arguments against the proposed scheme. These centre on the familiar problem of standards of governance in many state-run institutions.

The National Hospital Insurance Fund, which exists to offer a social safety net to the most vulnerable in society, has been accused of being a haven of corruption and inefficiency.

It receives remittances to the tune of billions of shillings per year but is not noted for its efficiency in delivering care to the poor.

The question critics of the proposed scheme have is what guarantees are there that a comprehensive national insurance scheme would not similarly be hijacked by operatives within the government and turned into a cash cow for the corrupt.

On whatever side of the debate one stands, it is fair to say all will agree that doing nothing is not an option.

Taxpayers should not have to make a pilgrimage of hundreds of kilometres to the hills of Arusha to imbibe a suspect concoction to treat their ills.

It is the responsibility of the state to ensure all Kenyans have access to a reasonable standard of health care, a right guaranteed under the new Constitution.

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