Researchers out to identify ‘hidden’ killers in Nyanza

Researchers fear there could be other diseases in Luo Nyanza — apart from the big three: Aids, tuberculosis and malaria — a reality hidden by lack of postmortem services.

Dr Dickens Onyango, an epidemiologist and Kisumu County director of health, told the Nation: “Children die and you wonder whether this is due to a new disease or a strain of a common disease.”

The Nation spoke to families that lost children to sickle cell anaemia and had attributed the deaths to chira, a Luo word for getting sick as a form of punishment for acting in way that is culturally frowned upon.

Migori County director of health Gregory Ganda, said Migori and Homa Bay do not have a pathologist, adding that the regional governments may not be allocating money for some health concerns that are contributing to the body count.

An ongoing international study on the cause of deaths in Siaya and Kisumu counties — Child Health And Mortality Prevention Surveillance (Champs) — has revealed not only the diseases that hide behind the usual culprits, including Aids, as well as the factors that drive health in Luo Nyanza, the Science-African rituals nexus the government ignores.

Conducting a postmortem is considered the “golden standard” for determining the cause of death.

However, there are very few pathologists in the country, 78, according to the Kenya Health Workforce Report, and whose job in the health system is diagnosing cancer and other tissue-related diseases.

When he lost his sister Maureen and his niece Beyonce (Maureen’s daughter) in March, Mr Daniel Otieno, a doughnut vendor, could not afford the Sh1,500 that the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Hospital in Kisumu charged for embalming.

That is where the effort to know what caused Maureen’s death would have ended.

Since Mr Otieno hails from Siaya, it could have been anything.

According to the National Aids Control Council, the HIV prevalence in Siaya stood at 24.8 per cent in 2015.

This is four times the national prevalence.


Maternal mortality is also considered among the highest in the county.

In his loss, Mr Otieno met social scientist Peter Nyanthimba from Kisumu’s Centre for Global Health Research affiliated with the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

The first study Mr Nyanthimba had in 2012 was a “verbal autopsy”, where he asked the residents what killed their loved ones.

When he conducted postmortems, the mortality rate of children under five was shocking: about 80 deaths per 1,000 live births, way above the national average of 52, according to the Kenya Demographic Health Survey.

Now, he is part of the Champs study, which will run for 20 years.

Maureen married a man whom her family had not approved of.

For that reason, they did not take her for medical care and even after her death, they did not want to find out what killed her.

Mr Otieno was left to bury his sister alone.

Ms Janet Agaya, a senior investigator with Champs, told the Nation that the study will give “ready-to-eat data” for county governments to solve health problems soon after they are discovered.


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