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Yes, at least 90 Kenyans die of cancer daily

This article is more than 4 years old

With Kenya focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, other diseases could become neglected, a lawmaker has said. 

Martha Wangari represents Gilgil constituency, northwest of the capital city Nairobi. She was speaking at a national assembly debate on how to protect Kenyans from the new coronavirus. As of 22 June 2020 there had been about 4,800 cases and 125 deaths in the country.

Some of the measures discussed included the closure of Kenya's land borders with Tanzania and Somalia. But noting that 1,000 families had been displaced by floods in Gilgil, Wangari cautioned that other diseases and disasters should not be overlooked.

“The other issue is the fact that we have relegated all other illnesses and forgotten that every day in this country we still lose 90 cancer patients. Those numbers are alarming.” 

Do 90 people die of cancer in Kenya every day? We checked.

Most recent data from 2018

According to data from the Global Cancer Observatory, or Globocan, the number of new cancer cases in Kenya was estimated at 47,887 in 2018.

The prevalence - existing cases - was estimated at 86,592 over five years, while deaths from cancer were estimated at 32,987. (Note: For more on how these numbers were arrived at, see this page. A more detailed discussion can be read here.)

The estimates were based on a population of 50.1 million. Kenya’s 2019 population census counted 47.5 million people.

Globocan is part of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

The 2018 data is still the most recent for Kenya, Anne Korir, head of the national cancer registry at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, told Africa Check.

The registry provides cancer data to the WHO. “Globocan data is released every five years and that is the latest at the moment,” said Korir.

The number of annual deaths works out to about 90 every day.

Korir said that the lawmaker was accurate, and the figure could well be an underestimation.

“I would say she is right and, if you look keenly the number might even be higher because the data is based on what we are able to report. Remember with cancer there could be people who are dying in the villages who never report to a health facility.”

Official figures ‘undercount’ – health ministry

Samuel Cheburet, head of civil registration and vital statistics at Kenya’s health ministry, agreed with Korir. He told Africa Check that the 17,000 cancer deaths recorded by the civil registration department in 2018 was an undercount.

The civil registration department was still “registering less than 50%” of deaths in the country, he said. 

“So if you multiply by two, it’s more,” Cheburet said. (Note: Kenya registered 43% of all deaths in 2019, according to the 2020 economic survey.)

The country’s cause of death data needs to be based on clinical evaluation, he said. “A person could have cancer, but die of something else.”

The civil registration department uses non-medical “lay reporting” which may involve officials such as assistant chiefs, Cheburet said. Assistant chiefs are local administrators in Kenya.

“There is no verification, but if you are using the clinician [medical] point of view, you are able to know this person really died of cancer but not other causes.” 

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