Nairobi Hospital's free cancer drug programme gives patients new lease of life

Nairobi Hospital CEO James Nyamongo (right) receives the trophy the health facility won in Lisbon, Portugal this week, for its free cancer treatment program, from the hospital’s Deputy Director in charge of Medical Services and Research, Dr Reuben Okioma, on November 2, 2023. [Courtesy]

The Nairobi Hospital plans to expand its free cancer treatment programme to address the growing demand by patients for care.

Prof Othieno Abinya, who is in charge of the programme, facilitated by a US-based organization, The Max Foundation, told The Standard that they have so far attended to more than 2,500 cancer patients since the launch in 2004.

Prof Abinya revealed that more partners, including the Ministry of Health, have since come on board.

“The medicines we use are mainly sourced by The Max Foundation, with pharmaceuticals being the biggest donors,” he said.

“The government mainly partners with us through the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency which helps in receiving and distributing the drugs to the various centres where the program operates,” he added.

The Nairobi Hospital has also partnered with several foreign healthcare players in the GIPAP program. Novartis Pharmaceutical provides medication as Axios International Aids helps in distribution. There is also Henzo Kenya, a patient support group. Nairobi Hospital and the Health Ministry are involved in coordination, storage, and other logistics related to the program.

The programme earned the hospital an international award in Lisbon, Portugal, this week when it won the honours during the International Hospital Federation (IHF) Awards ceremony, in honour of the Glivec International Patient Assistance Program (GIPAP) for cancer patients.

“We are happy to have won this award. Our CSR program has been recognized for the free cancer treatment we offer. We look forward to expanding the program in the coming years,” said Prof Abinya.

The program helps patients in low- and middle-income countries. It mainly targets patients suffering from chronic myelogenous leukaemia (CML) or gastrointestinal stromal tumour (GIST) who are provided with free drugs, including Imatinib which is sold under the brand names Gleevec and Glivec. Imatinib, an oral targeted therapy medication, is a molecule inhibitor targeting multiple types of cancers.

Nairobi Hospital CEO James Nyamongo (right) gifting Kisumu Governor Anyang Nyong’o during the marking of World Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML) Day on September 23, 2023. Looking on is Prof Othieno Abinya, project lead, GIPAP free cancer treatment program. [Courtesy]

Prof Abinya, an oncologist, said the Nairobi Hospital was selected to anchor the programme in 2004 because of facilities, including laboratories, that could carry out proper diagnosis.

Eligible patients are those who are not insured and cannot pay for treatment privately. A patient’s background is checked before they are admitted into the programme.

“We offer them free treatment. All we need is a diagnosis. Once the diagnosis is verified, the patient is put on treatment,” he said.

“The drugs are very expensive, and therefore unaffordable by many. This is what motivated the initiators of this programme. We provide more than ten cancer drugs free of charge,” he said adding; "Some of the drugs cost between Sh200,000 and 600,000 per dose, which is out of the reach of many."

“In 2000, a drug used to treat leukaemia was developed. But before it could be administered, accurate diagnosis was required,” said Abinya who is in a team of four oncologists and they attend to up to 170 patients on alternate Saturdays.

The patients receive Glivec or Imatinib at the hospital, every week for free. The drug is used to treat certain types of leukaemia and tumours.

“It can be overwhelming because we do not have enough personnel even as the need continues to increase. However, the good thing is we have expanded the program to other centres,” the oncologist said.

The programme has also been decentralised to reach more patients. Apart from the Nairobi Hospital, it has also been domiciled in some public hospitals including Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu and Nakuru PGH. The program also gets support from oncologists from Kenyatta National Hospital.

Nairobi Hospital CEO James Nyamongo noted that the programme is available in 80 developing countries, and more than 60,000 patients worldwide have benefited since its inception.

Prof Othieno Abinya, the head of the free cancer treatment programme at the Nairobi Hospital, at his office on November 2, 2023. [Courtesy]

“The award is historic, and a first for Kenya and Africa. I dedicate it to the thousands of cancer warriors who have benefitted from the GIPAP program over the years,” he said

Receiving the award on behalf of the hospital, Deputy Director in charge of Medical Services and Research Dr Reuben Okioma said: “The award means the free cancer treatment plan is transforming lives. We will continue to expand our dedicated cancer treatment centre as we invest in both personnel and equipment.”

The hospital was nominated for the IHF 2023 under the Seddiqi Holding Excellence Award, CSR category, for the awards ceremony during the 46th World Hospital Congress between October 25th and 27th.

Dr Muna Tahlak, the IHF president, who spoke during the ceremony, said: “With over 500 entries from 43 countries vying for recognition in seven categories this year, our panel of judges had a tough task evaluating and selecting the winners among many impressive and excellent entries. Being selected as a winner is a recognition that your entry was exceptionally meritorious and outstanding.”

Other health facilities that participated in the competition were Yale New Haven Health System (USA), Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital (UAE), Lusiadas Saúde (Portugal) and Myongji Hospital (Republic of Korea), Amiri Medical Complex (Afghanistan), French Medical Institute for Mothers and Children, Manila Doctors Hospital (Philippines) and Mediker LLP (Kazakhstan).

According to experts, cancer remains a leading killer among those aged 50-59 in Kenya, accounting for 12.7 per cent of the deaths. It kills more females (at a death rate of 9.3 per cent) compared to males whose death rate is at 7.6 per cent.

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