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Struggles Facing the Kenyan Health Care System

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Posted on 4/1/2013

Trainer Anne Kanini and community health volunteer Josephine Umazi use illustrations to explain good nutrition during a home visit in Kilifi County. Photo by Jake Lyell.

With a population of more than 45 million people, Kenya is one of the most populous sovereign nations in East Africa. Boasting some of the most impressive scenery in the world, including vast savannah, rugged mountain ranges and stunning national parks, Kenya is a popular destination for tourists. Despite its breathtaking natural beauty, Kenya faces a number of serious problems, including widespread poverty, income inequality and lack of access to healthcare. One of the biggest challenges in Kenya is to make healthcare available to all of its citizens. With approximately half its population living in poverty, Kenya struggles to provide access to basic healthcare services and medical treatment to its citizens, especially those living in rural communities and the densely populated slums. In fact, only 20 percent of Kenyans have  health insurance, meaning 35 million Kenyans are without good healthcare coverage.

Serious Setbacks

According to UNICEF, Kenya was considered to be one of Africa's success stories in terms of economic development and access to basic services such as healthcare and education. However, the violence that erupted amid allegations of political corruption in the country's presidential elections in 2007 presented a setback in government services that persists to this day, particularly in poor communities. In recent years, Kenya’s government has put forward a series of initiatives to improve its healthcare system and other services, with the goal of higher life expectancies and a 50 percent reduction in annual deaths from all causes by 2030.

Kenya's national gross domestic product (GDP) was an estimated $54.93 billion in 2013, according to the World Bank. In comparison to other developing countries, this number could be considered quite healthy, but  only 4.5 percent of the nation's GDP was invested in its healthcare system in the same year. With more than 19 million children under the age of 15 living in Kenya, this lack of investment has serious implications for the country's urgent health care problems. Kenya’s healthcare system cannot meet the vast needs.

Despite significant gains in promoting awareness of health and wellness in Kenya, preventable diseases remain a serious issue. Malaria is one of the country's biggest problems, with 6.7 million new cases and 4,000 deaths each year, particularly among children under 5. Although the rate of HIV infection has slowed in recent years, millions of families are still impacted by AIDS. Poor sanitation in urban areas and a lack of affordable medications in rural communities further contribute to the spread of disease, and many children do not have access to even basic healthcare in Kenya.

One reason is a shortage of healthcare professionals. Kenya has only one nurse for every 1,000 people, according to a 2014 study, and they’re poorly distributed throughout the country, leading to low-quality treatment in remote regions. Poor wages, ill-equipped facilities and understaffing leads to demoralization and burnout among healthcare professionals. And when Kenyans can find the medical attention they need, affordability is another obstacle that prevents many from accessing health care.

malnourished child

Epas rests in his mother's arms after being treated for malnutrition in the child nutritional ward at Lokitaung District Hospital. Photo by Jake Lyell.

Working Together

ChildFund has operated in Kenya since 1960 and has worked with government agencies and other child-focused nongovernmental organizations to improve the healthcare system in Kenya. In 2011, the Kenyan government entered into an alliance with the Peace Corps, USAID, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify a workable strategy, and the Global Health Initiative's (GHI) Kenya Strategy 2011-2014 identified several key goals for improving healthcare in Kenya. Since then, the World Bank and other global partners have launched the 2014-2018 Kenya Country Partnership Strategy.

One of the primary goals of these strategies is to provide greater access to healthcare and wellness services for women and girls living in poverty, to improve often inadequate prenatal care, and ultimately lower rates of maternal, neonatal and under-5 mortality. Work also continues to eradicate the millions of cases of malaria, which is responsible for an estimated 20 percent of deaths of children under the age of 5.

Although the Kenyan government receives international aid funding, you can help make a big difference in the life of a child through sponsorship.

Sponsoring a child in Kenya is an excellent way to invest in the life and well-being of a child, giving him or her better access to healthcare, education and other kinds of support. Alternatively, choosing a gift (such as a treated mosquito net) from our Real Gifts catalog allows you to select a specific way to help.