Over time, our health sector has undergone great transformation
World Health Day, which was celebrated on Sunday, is a time to applaud the great strides taken in the provision of healthcare in recent years, and to assess our direction of travel.
With 30 per cent of its total annual expenditure invested in it and 80 per cent of Kenyans seeking treatment in public hospitals, it would be an understatement to say health is a peripheral matter as detailed below.
Things really took off with the first Jubilee administration, which turned devolution from a slogan to a reality, improved service efficiency and made the health system more accountable, transparent and innovative.
Its detailed Health Policy for 2014–2030 offered clear metrics for success and for measuring its impact, and provided a strategy to bring our health provision upto par with middle income countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Indonesia.
A comprehensive report recently published in the Lancet, the world’s oldest and most prestigious general medical journal, summarises data from the past 25 years.
It demonstrates that Kenyans are just getting better and better all the time. The country made giant leaps forward between 2013-2017.
For example, the average life expectancy rose from 59 to 67. Children are 55 per cent less likely to die before they reach the age of five and mothers are 25 per cent less likely to die while giving birth.
It is easy to dismiss this progress and to assume it would have happened anyway, but that is wrong: in the previous decade, average life expectancy dropped by two years.
Diarrhoea, malaria, HIV and vaccine-preventable illnesses are all on the decline.
This is thanks to government investments, such as free maternity programmes or the announcement last month of the construction of a $100 million Aids drug factory, which will make treatment much more affordable and no longer dependent on imports from Europe (and provide jobs to over 1,000 people).
It is clearly also thanks to increased awareness and commitment by our people.
Air pollution, high on the list of life-threatening risks, is being tackled with aggressive government action to make our nation among the “greenest” in the world.
In his State of the Nation address, President Uhuru Kenyatta emphasised that “Kenya is a global leader in green energy with 85 per cent of our energy coming from renewable resources”.
This means better fuel quality and more regulation of vehicles that are allowed to drive in the congested streets of Nairobi and other big cities, where air quality is poor and roads are stained with black smoke.
Household air pollution, however, is not the government’s responsibility. It is caused both in urban and rural areas with limited access to electricity or liquefied petroleum gas, where people resort to burn firewood, charcoal, kerosene and even garbage for cooking or for lighting.
These can be worse than cigarette smoke, especially in poorly ventilated homes. The victims – primarily children and women who spend more time indoors – suffer from respiratory diseases and cancers.
Yet one of the most unjust and troubling aspects of the state of our health is how unequal it is across counties. In Homa Bay and Migori, life expectancy is about 58, while in Laikipia, Uasin Gishu and Bomet the average rises to 72. Kenya is one nation and we cannot accept that being born in some areas will mean dying earlier. Hopefully this challenge can be addressed through the ambitious Big 4 agenda- President Kenyatta’s legacy projects. The government is adamant that health services must be both affordable and universal.
The programme has already been rolled-out successfully in Isiolo, Machakos, Nyeri and Kisumu counties, and in the next two years we will see a full roll-out in the rest of the country. Looking at the data, one can assert we are on the right track. Of course, when one is sick or wounded, no graph or chart will heal him.
If a child falls ill, no policy paper will be good enough to dry her tears.
However, the facts give us plenty of reasons to wear a smile – which is not only the cheapest way to improve one’s looks, but it is also the best way to improve our health.
Ms Ng’ang’a is former Thika MP
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