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Cancer patients cry out

NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 8 – For the past seven months, the Kenyatta National Hospital\’s paediatric cancer unit has become the second home for three-year-old Collins.

His mother Ann Wamaitha says the young boy fell ill in May, 2010. She had taken him to three different hospitals but his condition deteriorated.

At the third hospital, they treated him for meningitis and sent him back home.

It was at this point that she opted to take him to Kenyatta National Hospital.

"But one month later, Collins\’ condition seemed to deteriorate. He could not walk or talk. Worse still, he lost his eyesight and we went back to KNH.  I was told he would have an X-ray done on him and that\’s when I was informed he had cancer," she says.

Collins was admitted and immediately put on treatment to which he responded well and he started walking and talking again.

The only thing remaining now is his sight.

And although it\’s seven months since Collins lost his sight he is still very active. He even plays with other children in the hospital\’s corridors.

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"I have asked for permission to take him to Kikuyu hospital (a missionary facility that specialises in ophthalmology) to have his eyes checked but they have refused because they think I will ran away (due to the bill). But I have been telling them that I can\’t escape when my child is like this," the troubled mother of three explains.

According to Dr Fatma Abdalla, a paediatric cancer specialist at KNH, the loss of eyesight is not as a result of the treatment.

"The blindness is most likely as a result of the cancer having spread to the brain because sight is controlled in the brain. It is not usually as a result of side effects of the treatment," the doctor explains.

Collins was discharged from hospital in November last year but could not leave because the bill was too high. They needed to pay Sh700,000 before the hospital can release them.

His mother now seems to have given up on the hope of leaving this hospital. She tells us that she has not checked what the current bill is.

Ann has two other children who have now gone to live with their grandmother.

In the same hospital, we meet Rose, a grandmother to an 11-year-old boy. Her grandson is suffering from cancer of the stomach and has been at the hospital for the last five months.

He has also been detained at this hospital for a bill of 100,000 shillings.

"I was unable to pay because we are taking care of his siblings too who are now with their grandfather at home. They are orphans and I don\’t know how we can raise the money," she recounts.

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"I don\’t even want to check how much the bill has accumulated to," Rose who has travelled from Embu, about 120km North East of Nairobi says.

According to Christopher, a father to a three-year-old girl who is also admitted to the hospital with cancer of the stomach, the bills inflate due to the high cost of drugs.

The father of three now wants the government to subsidise the cost of cancer treatment.

"When you come to the hospital there are many challenges that follow you. Sometimes the cancer drugs are not available and they are also very expensive," he says.

"My daughter\’s chemotherapy drugs were costing Sh2, 000 per course and you can have more than 10 courses, and if you miss to take one you start (the course) from scratch," he said.

And when such patients are unable to clear their bills and leave the hospital, it means that other children who are waiting to be admitted cannot get admitted.

This is fast becoming a challenge to the hospital which is the only public health facility that handles cancer cases.

At any one time, KNH has about 80 children admitted for cancer treatment.

"But you cannot clearly state the figures because even those who have been discharged and are yet to leave are still counted. But we have many others who are waiting to be admitted," Dr Abdalla says.

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Unfortunately, the country is yet to legislate cancer treatment.  A Cancer Control Bill that was presented to the Parliamentary Health Committee last year is yet to reach the floor of the House.

David Makumi, Vice Chairman of the Kenya Cancer Association says the Bill is important because it will address various cancer issues like screening, equipment, treatment disparity and funding of cancer control programmes.

"Currently cancer is treated as a non-communicable disease and there is not much interest in it. In the budget cancer is allocated Sh70,000 annually, which is not even enough for one patient," he says.

Dr Abdalla says if every adult Kenyan contributed to the National Hospital Insurance Fund, incidences where patients are unable to clear hospital bills would be reduced.

"You never know if you are going to need that card; you never know if your child is going to end up with cancer and you end up with a bill of Sh25,000 plus and that\’s something that a lot of Kenyans are not even aware of," she says.

"We also need philanthropic Kenya citizens to remember these children and come and assist," she concludes.

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