Don’t lose focus on forgotten diseases

Childhood pneumonia remains the second biggest killer of our children.
A sick child. Childhood pneumonia remains the second biggest killer of our children. PHOTO | COURTESY 

A few weeks back, a peer sent me an article about the risk managers in government — those who decide what we ban and what we do in order to be ‘safe’. The article was not about our own risk managers, but about a set in Europe, pointing out how badly they had hurt us all with poor decisions and asking how they can be held accountable.

It wasn’t an article about coronavirus management, but maybe it better could have been. For when will the word break out that we all got involved in mass hysteria over this virus? And why is there a hole in our government and international risk management planning that blinds us to the consequences of our interconnected, plug-in, global village of communications, and our addiction, nowadays, to sensationalism to grab eyes.

In the history of humankind, we have never had an era where communicators constantly competed to frighten us and we were nearly all connected, everywhere. And yet risk managers cannot draw up a single page on what they could do to us and our planet? Not even a paragraph of the risks that entails?

For sure, we have seen commentary enough on how we were underprepared for a pandemic. But let’s suppose we were charged today, as a set of ‘thinkers’, with outlining the risks to humankind caused by the state and nature of today’s information market. What risks would you list?

Suppose we had a new virus break out in China and the media went into hyper drive over it: daily stories of each one-in-a-billion 43-year-old housewife who caught the bug and died, endless lists of symptoms and debates about masks, and even daily updates: what would happen then? Would our reactions and risk management remain proportionate, or could we do damage through disproportionate amelioration?


Well, let’s look at our new case study: in Kenya, we have run daily updates on the coronavirus for five months, during which time the virus has killed 622 people. Is that proportionate?

Childhood pneumonia, which remains the second biggest killer of our children, killed 11,203 under 5s in Kenya in 2016. It has, thankfully, fallen a little in 2017 and 2018, but still numbers thousands of deaths a year and that is just the under-5 year olds.

Yet, where are the daily updates on the more than 4,000 childhood pneumonia deaths in that same 20 weeks?

That’s not to say that if we are blasted by an international pandemic, we should suddenly start reporting better on all our normal killers. But when we have closed our schools, introduced curfews, run lockdowns that have disrupted millions of livelihoods and our food chains, sent people home from the workplace, halved the capacity of public transport and stopped public meetings, can we honestly say we will do six times that to stop deaths from childhood pneumonia?

It’s disproportionate. And yet we knew. Before any of those measures was put in place, we had clear data from China showing the risk for those under-60 was extremely small, barely a 1 in 500 chance of death even where symptoms showed.

We knew our population’s average age was less than 19 years, making a disease of the old all the less daunting for Kenya. We had fair sight of the overall death rate. We knew it was massively less dangerous than Avian flu or Ebola, and also than almost all of our top killers from breast cancer to diarrhoea. We knew that very few deaths were happening where there were no underlying conditions, despite the media homing in on any one younger, previously healthy victim.

Yet we savaged our economy and, to this day, stuff our news channels and in every way demonstrate the symptoms of mass hysteria, for a virus that has accounted for one in 500 of Kenya’s normal deaths in 2020.

By which I mean, every year, around 280,000 Kenyans die. This year 280,000 will still die, and probably more on all those who didn’t get treatment because of our hysteria, plus now there’s the 600 from the coronavirus. Who will be the person who finally says we got this out of perspective? Will it only be the historians?