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Road to free healthcare wasn’t going to be easy

By David Machio | June 7th 2019

Recently, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta represented Kenya at the World Health Organization's (WHO) 72nd World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva. She discussed the successes of Kenya's Universal Health Coverage (UHC) programme, which was inaugurated last December.

In December, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus joined President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and other leaders during the roll out of the pilot program for the Universal Healthcare in Kisumu. This was replicated in Nyeri, Isiolo and Machakos, with plans to implement it in all of our 47 counties within four years.

So far, the programme's success is already visible, and can serve as a blueprint for other African nations looking to launch similar initiatives. Yet again, despite our problems, Kenya is serving as the point of reference when seeking to scale up government programmes - this time in the health sector.

Who’s benefitting?

Speaking at the meeting in Geneva, WHO Director-General gave the example of 33-year-old Immaculate Otene from Kisumu, an unemployed mother of four whose husband often goes without work. (Immaculate was also present at the December event), Her testimony is that UHC has been life-changing even in her penury. The Linda Mama (Project Mama) initiative is of particular significance for her and other young women of childbearing age. Linda Mama allows and encourages mothers to give birth in local hospitals at no fee.

The long-term benefits of a mother?s health are manifold, guaranteeing the physical and mental health of generations to come. Consider, for example, the Asian Tiger nations, that cruised through the path of development from the 1960s to the 1990s. This was in large part due to health care investments for ordinary citizens, with extra attention paid to sexual and reproductive health.

But prenatal support is only one aspect of a huge variety of health services that the UHC will offer to all Kenyans, regardless of income or place of residency. The mission of the programme, in line with the Big 4 Agenda, is to help all of our citizens be healthy, confident and comfortable, leading to greater economic prosperity: A healthy nation is a working nation no doubt.

The four counties participating in the pilot were selected due to high prevalence of communicable and noncommunicable diseases, population density, maternal mortality, and occurence of road traffic collisions.

The success has already been documented in remote villages in the North East. In Turkana, health officials have reportedly detected and preemptively diverted the outbreak of numerous infectious diseases. Changes are not happening overnight, but that?s not what we should expect. In the next few years, as UHC spreads out, Kenyans should expect slow, but continual progress in primary healthcare and community health.

A healthy nation

Of what use is the UHC beyond ante-natal and prenatal care and addressing emerging ailments? Now, these new health benefits ought to prompt us to do something else. It is on us to go for regular check-ups, monitor our health and take advantage of preemptive screening and free vaccinations. Embracing these benefits will turn us into a healthier nation, where employees are taking less sick days, and healthy mothers are able to serve as productive contributors to the workforce.

Something that needs due consideration but is less spoken about is children’s mental health. How mentally healthy our children matter a lot for development. Mentally healthy children focus well on their studies and consequently pass well providing the country with invaluable human resource. Besides mental health, every parent should send his or her child to school without fearing that they will catch communicable diseases.

It is not all going to happen overnight though. Healthcare professionals have identified a host of challenges in Kenya that the UHC seeks to overcome. This long list includes waterborne diseases, TB, HIV and STDs, maternal health and nutrition, and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. With the UHC programme in action, Kenya is a trailblazer in Africa for the UN Sustainable Development Goals - a huge achievement for our country.

To achieve Vision 2030, the important thing for now is to ensure that healthy citizens participate in a prosperous economy. And it is not a government-only task. Partnership with the private sector and civil society ensures affordability for all and effective implementation. UHC is ultimately about equity and fairne


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