Fact Checker: Kenya’s actual cancer burden uncertain

National Cancer ambassadors held a peaceful demonstrations on August 1, 2019 to educate the public on cancer. [Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

What is the cancer burden on the Kenyan society? This question has featured prominently in recent days following the death of Kibra MP Ken Okoth and Bomet Governor Joyce Laboso from cancer within days of each other.

Alarming statistics have made headlines and grabbed the attention of social media, with Health Cabinet Secretary Sicily Kariuki last week inaugurating the Board of the National Cancer Institute to lead the fight against the disease. “It is estimated that 47,887 new cases of cancer are detected and 32,987 people die annually and approximately 3,200 new cancer cases among children below 18 years,” said the Ministry of Health in a statement.

The Government further listed the top five most common cancers in the country as breast, cervical, oesophageal, prostate and colorectal cancer, with infections from HIV, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and Hepatitis B and C viruses also contributing significantly to the cancer burden.

According to the Lancet Medical Journal, there has been a rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and injuries related to rapid urbanisation and adoption of lifestyle changes characterised by high caloric intake, excessive alcohol consumption, and physical inactivity.

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“Cancers, cardiovascular disease, and cerebrovascular diseases are increasingly the focus of public health intervention efforts in Kenya,” explains the journal in part. The government’s National Cancer Control Strategy 2017-2022 lists cancer as the third leading cause of death after infectious and cardiovascular diseases.

“Among the NCD-related deaths, cancer is the second leading cause of death accounting for seven per cent of overall national mortality after cardiovascular diseases,” says the strategy paper in part.

The policy also puts the annual incidence of cancer at close to 37,000 new cases with an annual mortality of over 28,000.

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“The leading cancers in women are cervix uteri (40.1/100,000), breast (38.3/100,000) and oesophagus (15.1/100,000),” says the report. “In men, prostate (31.6/100,000), Kaposi sarcoma (16/100,000) and oesophagus (20.5/100,000) are the most common cancers.”

This is a marked difference in the figures cited by the ministry and is much lower than statistics reported in the media, some putting the number of new cases at more than 80,000 annually. However, the figures in the National Cancer Strategy are pulled from a study published in 2013, indicating the burden could have significantly risen in the past six years.

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At the same time, the Kenya National Demographic Health Survey published every five years by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics should be the most authoritative source of cancer statistics.

However, the survey, most recently conducted in 2014, also neglects to measure specific cancer indicators, largely focusing on maternal health, fertility, malaria, and HIV. This makes it difficult to ascertain the country’s exact cancer burden.

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cancerKibra MP Ken OkothBomet Governor Joyce Laboso