The number of cancer patients who have been leaving the country for treatment overseas, especially India, has risen sharply due to a lack of specialised medics locally.
Official data shows that there are only 12 oncology specialists in Kenya, a situation that piles pressure on desperate patients to seek medical attention elsewhere.
This scenario could, however, change soon following a raft of ongoing and planned training programmes for oncology specialists.
The University of Nairobi signed up the first batch of chemotherapy specialists who are scheduled to commence training on September 5.
Prof Othieno Abinya, a medical oncologist and lecturer at Nairobi University, says the training for the specialists is a two-year programme and aims to improve quality of medical service to patients.
“The course selection was very competitive as several candidates from Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia Uganda and Tanzania applied online but only four candidates were selected,” he says.
Two are from Kenya while South Africa and Uganda got one slot each.
Aga Khan University Hospital also launched a new oncology nurse training programme at the beginning of the month.
The diploma in oncology nursing offered at the Aga Khan University Hospital is the first in the region. The programme is a public-private partnership between the hospital, Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital and the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Canada.
Ms Tayreez Mushani, an assistant professor at the Aga Khan University Hospital, says the course was started due to the increasing cancer cases in the region and is based on international standards from the Canadian Association of Nurses in oncology.
Training at the Aga Khan University Hospital School of Nursing is a 18-month work-study programme with classes twice a week while at the course at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital is a one year weekly programme.
Currently there are 16 students training in Nairobi and 10 students in the Eldoret campus with the entry criteria being eligible nurses who have practised for two years.
It is a relief for many patients who would otherwise have to travel abroad seeking medical treatment due to a shortage of oncologists as well as inadequate equipment in a Kenya.
Build oncology and neurology capacity
Having the trained chemotherapy specialists, frees oncologists to attend to patients and not perform therapy sessions.
Another programme sponsored by the East African Development Bank and the British Council to build oncology and neurology capacity in East Africa.
The East Africa Medical Training and Fellowship Programme (METAF) has two courses in oncology, and neurology clinical skills open to physicians based in East Africa.
The programme is a seven-day course in oncology, a precursor to the clinical skills training in Nairobi next April.
“It is an ambitious four-year initiative that is aimed at reducing the burden of cancer and neurological disorders across East Africa through increasing the number of physicians with specialist neurology and oncology skills,” states the Royal College of Physicians website.
The programme is open holders of Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery or Masters in Medicine degrees.
Outstanding participants from the METAF programme will be invited to undertake a two-year specialist academic and clinical training fellowship in the UK to further develop their skills starting September next year.
Radiotherapy is another important part of cancer treatment which is why next year Nairobi University will start a four-year programme for radiation oncologists.
“The first group of radiotherapy group will be selected mid next year,” says Prof Abinya.
Already there was a group of students who travelled to South Africa for radiotherapy training last year for a four-year programme sponsored by the Ministry of Health.
Last week, the ministry, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta and Roche Pharmaceuticals announced that they would train five new oncology specialists and six oncology nurses to increase the number of cancer treatment centres in Kenya.
The pact between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a top notch cancer centre is also expected to boost cancer treatment.
“The deal to construct a top notch fully fledge cancer centre at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) comes as a reprieve to cancer patients and a move into the right course of offering affordable healthcare to patients,” says Prof Abinya.
The Indian government, which also donated an advanced radiotherapy machine to KNH is also a relief for many patients who have been on the waiting list for months awaiting treatment.
Dr Anselmy Opiyo, an oncologist and head of KNH cancer unit, says the new machine is time efficient offering 15 minutes radiotherapy sessions compared to 30 minutes per session by current equipment, treating more patients.
Currently KNH has only three radiotherapy machines that serves a large number of patients, forcing some to seek costly treatment at local private hospitals at a higher cost.
Trips made by Kenyans to India for cancer treatment could also be a thing of the past as patients seek affordable treatment locally.
A trip to India for cancer treatment costs an upward of Sh3 million, depending on the kind treatment being offered, the number of days one will be there, as well as number of people accompanying the patient.
Visa fees to India for a period of six months cost Sh8,300 while air ticket ranges between Sh80,000 and Sh120,000.