One of the most intriguing tasks I handled as a young scribe was penning human interest dispatches, especially on diseases. It is Prof Krina Bhatt, of the University of Nairobi, whom I was interviewing, who dropped the bomb on the neglected tropical diseases. Curiosity would later land me at the Kenya Medical Research Institute where, on a bright afternoon, I held court with Dr Monique Wasunna.
The eloquent, affable and passionate Dr Wasunna blew the lid off the undercurrents of the neglected diseases. As the Africa director of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, she was battling visceral leishmaniasis or kala azar caused by sand fly bites. The disease is common in Baringo and West Pokot in Kenya and western Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan. It has neither a cure nor a vaccine.
There are many of these “diseases of the poor”, mainly in the Global South. They include African sleeping sickness, trachoma, dengue and chagas. Estimates from the Centres for Disease Control are petrifying – about a billion people are affected. My encounter with Dr Wasunna soon became a crash course on the medicine, politics, economics and sociology of neglected diseases. It was heart-rending to learn of the horrendous suffering and deaths. Since they affect the poor, drugs for such diseases have inferior commercial value and offer little incentive for big pharmaceuticals to inject funds into research and development. Thus, most of these diseases have no cure. Such is the sick moral and ethical fabric of raw capitalism. And the poor are dying. Interestingly, not even governments are bothered. Instead, diseases of the rich such as balding, diabetes, or heart illness are enjoying rock-star attention, because, you guessed right, they attract big money.
This sad reality was replayed recently when a battery of health officials scampered to revoke the licences of low-end eateries in Nairobi accused of manufacturing and spreading cholera. But it’s not because the health honchos are defying codes of social stratification. Cholera is a disease of the poor found in the most fetid of worlds either due to untreated water or faecal-laced food.
It doesn’t affect the rich, right? Wrong! You must have heard that two Cabinet secretaries ingested the unholy bacteria. Such is the shamelessness of this cholera thing. It is becoming urbane. A few months ago, it struck at a wedding in the swanky Karen suburb of Nairobi. Then, there was another episode at a posh hotel, where, ironically, doctors were not spared either. This bacteria has crossed the red line. Cholera is now a disease of the rich, too. That is why health officials are frantically trying to contain it. You see, our public officials have imitated the raw capitalism of pharmaceuticals – to serve the elite. Yet, to understand this misadventure, you need to delve into the milieu of the off-the-mill public actor. They are smug and slothful. They have hit the menopause of any constructive concepts and lack the will to serve the taxpayer. The hoi polloi do not fit in the jigsaw. Even the cholera vaccine that ought to have been dispensed is frozen somewhere, nor do we hear of aggressive public health campaigns to tame the bacteria.
This explains why Nairobi is one big stinking cesspit where sewage spews onto streets with abandon. Nairobi and cholera is almost like 1800 London. Of course, this blatant neglect of public interest negates the doctrine of the social contract. But since cholera seems to have squirmed its way to the high tables, it is now turning the tables. Public officials, who characteristically behave like big pharma, have swung into action. Dr Wasunna must be winking knowingly. Well, folks, such is life.
Eric Wamanji is a public relations expert.