On January 1, Auma Khayoko Mugeni from Luchululo Village, Busia County was excited to join her family in New Year celebrations.
After a sumptuous lunch at 1pm, Auma excused herself for a siesta. Her grand-daughter discovered her lifeless body three hours later in the bedroom.
They had just buried Caroline Ajiambo, who died in similar circumstances four days earlier.
Ajiambo, a househelp had woken up in a robust state. Around 11, her boss heard a noise in the kitchen. Ajiambo had collapsed. She died before reaching Busia Referral Hospital.
Auma and Ajiambo are just two of the more than 10 people who collapsed and died mysteriously in Funyula Constituency in less than two months.
Sixty-six-year Joseph Nyongesa, a resident of Ganjala Township, said; “First, it was my 66-year-old cousin Sylvanos Makokha who died in his compound late November.
“Before we buried him, a woman in neighbouring Busibi Village died in similar circumstances. A week later, a matatu driver ferrying passengers from Matayos to Busia Town collapsed and died on the steering wheel near Mundika market.”
Like many residents, he is still trying to figure out what could have triggered the deaths.
And they may never know, considering that no postmortem examination was conducted on the bodies.
Residents say autopsies are expensive while others do not suspect foul play.
“The minimum cost for a postmortem examination is Sh10,000, way above the means of families,” Mr Nyongesa added.
However, experts believe the deaths could be due to cardiovascular and stroke-related complications.
And this is not just a Busia County affair. Cases of people collapsing and dying are being reported all over Kenya.
“It is not surprising that such incidences are being referred to as mysterious,” Dr Grace Achiya, a Nairobi-based cardiologist, said.
People with diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidaemia, obesity and HIV are at high risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Others include tobacco users and those on prescribed drugs.
The World Health Organization also links heart attacks to advancing age, genes, gender, race and ethnicity.
According to WHO data published in May 2014, deaths as a result of heart diseases in Kenya reached 9,163 or 2.74 per cent of total fatalities while stroke claimed 14,609 or 4.37 per cent.
What is worrying is that the number of cardiovascular disease cases appears to be on the rise.
For instance, 5,492 people died of heart-related complications in 2012, according to the Ministry of Health.
However, Dr Achiya believes the figure is much higher. Many go unreported, which she attributes to low awareness on causes, symptoms and diagnosis.
Indeed, S. Oti and C. Kyobutungi from the African Population and Health Research Centre concluded in a study published last year that levels of awareness, treatment and control of cardiovascular diseases were dismally low even in urban settings like Nairobi.
According to the study; Cardiovascular Disease Conditions: Prevalence, Awareness, Treatment and Control among the Urban Poor in Nairobi, only one in five of those diagnosed with diabetes or hypertension was aware of their condition.
Among those who knew they had hypertension, less than a third were being treated.
Among those who were aware of being diabetic, slightly more than a half were on treatment.
Another study by PM Chege of Moi University’s Department of Family Medicine showed that hypertension in different ethnic groups ranged from six per cent among rural populations to 24 per cent among urbanites, while the national prevalence of the disease was estimated at five per cent.
The study published in the South African Family Practice Journal last year, also revealed a relatively high prevalence of dysglycemia — abnormal blood glucose levels — in Webuye, western Kenya.
Worse, a majority of residents were not aware of their status.
HIV is also fuelling the rise in cardiovascular diseases, according to a study published in the Aids Patient Care and STDs Journal.
The study showed an increase in heart conditions among HIV+ adults, attributed to infection with the virus and side effects of antiretroviral drugs.
The situation is compounded by few hospitals, services and apathy for check-ups by Kenyans.
According to the Health Sector Human Resources Strategy 2014–18, the number of crucial workers like doctors, nurses and diagnostic scientists in Kenya is still very low.