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Kenya: COVID-19 affects fight against breast cancer

Women avoid visiting hospitals due to pandemic fear in Kenya, where 4,500 patients die annually from breast cancer

Andrew Wasike   | 28.10.2020
Kenya: COVID-19 affects fight against breast cancer

NAIROBI, Kenya

Out of fear of contracting the COVID-19 pandemic, many Kenyans, mostly women suffering from breast cancer are avoiding visiting hospitals to take medical help.

Such is the fear that Health Chief Administrative Secretary Dr. Mercy Mwangangi has issued an appeal to all sick persons to undertake a regular visit to hospitals as they are safe and sanitized.

According to reports, breast cancer is the leading cause of deaths of women with 4,500 patients diagnosed with the disease every year in Kenya.

For shopkeeper Tracy Mutheu, the COVID-19 has not only ruined her economy but stopped her routine to visit the hospital to treat breast cancer.

“My sickness comes in waves. It comes as fatigue and pain in my stomach, at times, and then as heart issues and constant migraines. This is all because I have not been taking treatment,” she said.

Her business of selling household appliances used to fund her treatment. But since the pandemic outbreak and restrictions, there are not many visitors.

“Whoever said tough times never last was wrong. The COVID-19 is real and is killing many cancer patients, who have low immunity due to our kind of treatment. Now we cannot even pay for that life-saving treatment. The pandemic has left me broken, “Mutheu told Anadolu Agency.

Away from the capital Nairobi to Nyeri town in the central highlands of Kenya, Gladys Waweru is also facing similar hardships.

“I am locked down and I cannot move. I used to travel to Nairobi, some 93 miles [149 kilometers] for treatment. I would stay at a hotel in Nairobi and come back the next day, but there are curfews and travel restrictions that have affected my hospital routine, “she said.

Waweru, who was an accountant lost her job and is now relying on the husband not only to feed the family but for her treatment as well.

“I am no scared of death. But I am causing pain to my family. I have to endure every single day just because of the breast cancer, “she added.

Breast cancer is women killer in Africa

According to the Kenya-based National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer affecting mostly women aged between 40-55. Cancer has become the third leading cause of death in Kenya.

Researchers from NCBI said that due to the pandemic, Kenya’s limited healthcare system and qualified health workers face an additional risk of contracting the disease, patients fear visiting the facilities.

"The lack of guidelines [from Health Ministry] has left impoverished patients at a heightened risk, particularly those currently receiving or recently having received chemo or radiation therapy and those requiring bone marrow or cell transplants," said an oncologist.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, David Makumi an award-winning health activist and chairman of Kenya Network of Cancer Organizations said the economic effect of COVID-19 on breast cancer patients has made the situation worse.

“Many persons like other Kenyans suffering from breast cancer have lost jobs. They may have already lost jobs due to cancer, they were already struggling economically because they were funding their breast cancer treatment. Some were running small businesses which they could no longer do because of the economic effect of COVID-19 plus the effect of the disease [breast cancer], so they have faced a double tragedy from breast cancer, “said the health activist.

Makumi added that breast cancer patients are at a slightly higher risk of getting COVID-19 since cancer reduces their immunity.

“So, I would say they have been assaulted from all angles, our patients are going through an extremely difficult challenging time, they are at a much higher risk of getting COVID-19, some of them are afraid of going to the hospital because they might get COVID-19 from hospitals, “he added.

Makumi also urged breast cancer patients to visit hospitals for regular treatment as they are safe and precautions have been put in place to ensure health facilities are safe for all cancer patients.

He said that around 100 Kenyans are diagnosed with cancer every single day. The health activist apprehended that there is a possibility to see a surge in people with advanced cancer because of the delays of treatment occasioned by COVID-19.

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