Jeffrey Okoro: As Kenya’s medical workers strike a community health crisis unfolds in the shadows

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CFK Africa's Tabitha Medical Clinic provides much-needed healthcare services to residents of Kibera and beyond. Photo credit: CFK Africa.

Kenya’s healthcare system is grappling with a crisis threatening the lives of its most vulnerable citizens, yet their stories have been hidden in the shadows.

The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists, and Dentists Union, representing over 7,000 members, went on strike on March 15 raising their voices and airing their grievances. Their demands are just, but the consequences are dire. The strike has paralyzed access to affordable healthcare, particularly for low-resource communities and those living in informal settlements.

The effects are palpable within our walls at Tabitha Medical Clinic.

As a leading NGO and healthcare provider in Kibera, Kenya’s largest informal settlement, CFK Africa is at the frontlines of this crisis. Our facilities are working to bridge the gap in service provision, but they are straining under the weight of an increased patient load.

Nairobi’s reality is stark: 50% of the population lives in informal settlements and cannot afford private healthcare. In the crowded community of Kibera, where most residents live on less than $3 a day, cost-prohibitive private hospitals remain out of reach for many. The slightly more reasonable options are already overwhelmed. Lab technicians and nurses just joined the strike, further reducing skilled care.

CFK Africa and other NGOs step up where the government falters. But we are not enough.

With a rise in patients seeking care, our stock of prescription medicines is dwindling along with operational resources. Facilities refer cases to our clinic, yet their severity often surpasses our capacity. Turning away people in need is disheartening and highlights the harsh reality of this crisis.

I am grateful for CFK Africa’s dedicated healthcare workers who are facing these new challenges head-on. They have confronted referrals to our clinic from public hospitals outside the scope of our primary care services that strain our resources. Despite these challenges, they remain steadfast in their commitment to patient care.

We are negotiating with private providers, community-based organizations, and nonprofit health facilities to accept referrals from our clinic, but this process further delays urgent patient care. We are also calling in community health workers to follow up with women who have recently given birth and community residents with chronic illnesses so that they can get the urgent medical attention they need.

Expectant mothers are bearing the brunt of this crisis.

A patient who stood out to me was a young mother from Kajiado. At her first pangs of labor, she boarded a bus to Nairobi to find an open hospital that would deliver her baby. She was referred to five different hospitals where she met long lines and was unable to receive care. While waiting, she heard about CFK Africa’s maternity services from other women. Despite her long journey, she boarded one more boda boda motorcycle taxi to Kibera and successfully delivered her baby at our Tabitha Maternity Home.

CFK Africa’s Tabitha Maternity Home handles routine deliveries. But when cases demand specialized interventions like cesarean sections or neonatal intensive care units, we refer patients elsewhere. Yet, the facilities equipped with these resources have shuttered their doors. Denied access to maternal care, expecting mothers and their newborns face dangerous circumstances.

The strike’s actual toll remains unknown.

No comprehensive assessment exists of the turned-away patients. People remain unaware until someone they know is affected. Even if the strike ends soon, the fallout will persist. Simple cases left unaddressed will fester into chronic emergencies.

As the strike continues, the healthcare of Kenya’s most vulnerable is at greatest risk. It’s the reported deaths of those who did not receive timely care. It’s the expectant mothers turned away while in labor. It’s people with chronic illnesses who cannot receive routine care.

Their lives hang in the balance, and our collective responsibility demands urgent action.

To learn more about CFK Africa, visit www.cfkafrica.org.

Jeffrey Okoro is the executive director of CFK Africa

Jeffrey Okoro
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