Kenya: Doctors strike over poor health care

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By TOM ODULA, Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Doctors in Kenya's public hospitals on Wednesday spent their 17th day on strike to protest the dilapidated state of public health care. Emergency rooms in some of Kenya's public hospitals frequently don't have gloves or medicine, and power outages sometimes force doctors to use the light from their phones to complete a procedure.

Kenya's government fired 1,000 of the 2,000 striking doctors last week despite a shortfall of skilled medical practitioners. The government had promised to implement reforms in health care last year after doctors walked off the job and held protests.

At least two patients have died due to lack of treatment since the strike started, union officials say, but the government claims health facilities are coping well without the striking workers.

Attempts to hold talks this week with officials from the Ministry for Medical Services failed, prompting the doctors to flood social media with tell-all stories about deplorable conditions in public hospitals.

"Tuberculosis patients meant to be isolated yet they are sharing beds in the corridors meant for walking which have been converted to wards," Dr. Stanely Aruyaru said in a Twitter posting.

"It is a pity for someone to survive an accident but die in hospital because there is no blood, no Intensive Care Unit, no cervical collar, no splints and now no doctor," said Dr. Allan Kochi from the Nyeri provincial hospital in the Central Kenya. Dr. Nelly Bosire, the union representative, confirmed that the postings were authentic.

Dr. Fredrick Oluga, told The Associated Press how in mid-August he was called in to help remove the placenta from a woman that was stuck after she had just given birth. Oluga said that that when he arrived there was no electricity at the Vihiga district hospital in western Kenya and the standby generator did not have fuel. And the hospital did not have gynecological gloves for the procedure, he said.

"The patient was bleeding profusely and I had to act quickly so the nurse pointed light from her phone for me to conduct the procedure," Oluga said. He said twice this year he had to use light from a mobile phone and that such incidents are fairly common across the country.

Health care has been in a deplorable state in Kenya for a long time, but the country's poor — and many in Kenya — think the state of health care is the norm, said Bosire, the Nairobi branch chairwoman of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacist and Dentist Union.

Bosire said middle class and rich Kenyans do not realize the problems in public health facilities until they are forced to seek treatment there when treatment in private hospitals becomes too expensive. Public hospitals charge far less than private hospitals, where politicians and top government officials seek treatment, Bosire said.

The two top health officials in the country, Medical Services Minister Anyang Nyongo, who fired the striking doctors and has refused to negotiate with the union, and the Minister for Public Health Beth Mugo, spent months in the U.S. for cancer treatment last year at the taxpayers' expense, Bosire said.

"We have specialists in this country to treat such cases, though inadequate in number. We just lack the facilities," she said.

Doctors want the government to spend more money on health care, including hiring more workers. International advocacy groups have repeatedly criticized Kenya for not investing enough in health care. The World Health Organization says Kenya and several other countries in Africa have not met a pledge made in 2000 to increase their health budgets to 15 percent of their national budgets by 2010. Kenya, East Africa's biggest economy has set aside 6 percent of the total budget. Rwanda, by comparison, allocates 18 percent of the total budget to health care, Bosire said.

Kenya has one doctor for every 6,250 people. The World Health Organization's recommended ratio is one doctor for 100 people.

Mwalimu Mati, an anti-corruption crusader, says the health care funding shortfall is caused in part by non-essential government spending, like international and domestic travel by government officials. Kenya recently inaugurated a newly refurbished parliament chamber where each of 350 seats cost $3,000.

Bosire said 32 babies less than a month old die in Kenya each day because of a lack of incubators to keep them warm.

"If I must stay on the street to get the infrastructure I need to save life," said Bosire, "then I'd rather be on the streets, rather than certifying deaths in hospitals."

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