Is it cholera, or is it not? This was the question the Ministry of Health was wrestling with last evening in the wake of a disease outbreak at a Nairobi hotel.
Doctors gathered at Weston Hotel along Langata Road for a science conference had in the morning been forced to cut short their deliberations to address a more biting and immediate challenge: a suspected cholera outbreak among the delegates.
The more than 500 delegates have been discussing Kenya’s vulnerability to respiratory diseases at the hotel associated with Deputy President William Ruto since Tuesday this week.
On Thursday, 47 of them were admitted to various hospitals in the city after they developed cholera-related complications.
The hotel’s management refused to talk to the Nation regarding the matter, and this reporter later in the day learnt that more tests on the delegates had been stopped. It was not clear on whose orders.
Later in the evening, the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Dr Cleopa Mailu, told the Nation that his ministry was regarding cases of diarrhoea reported at the hotel as food poisoning until confirmation tests are carried out.
“The signs and symptoms do not meet classical case definition for cholera,” said Dr Mailu.
The Director of Medical Services, Dr Jackson Kioko, also denied reports of the outbreak, saying the stomachaches were a common food-related infection that is characterised by vomiting and diarrhoea, known as gastroenteritis.
Dr Kioko said the Ministry of Health’s department of disease surveillance and the National Public Health Laboratories will conduct tests to confirm or debunk the cholera assumption.
Exonerating Weston, Dr Kioko said he suspected that one of the delegates may have eaten in joints with questionable hygiene and brought the infection back to the hotel.
“We are trying to find out from those who are already sick where they may have had their dinners in the last few days,” he said.
One of those affected, hospitalised at Nairobi Hospital, was barely audible when we spoke to him on phone. He said he developed diarrhoea on Wednesday.
“I thought it was food poisoning, so I took water the whole day knowing it would pass,” he said.
Two other patients sought medical care at Karen and Nairobi hospitals, but a source said there could be many who have contracted the highly communicable disease, “but they are doctors, so they are sorting themselves out”.
At the entrance of the conference hall on the first floor of the imposing hotel on Langata Road, a notice on Thursday directed anyone experiencing stomachache to a presidential suite. The same poster was placed in the toilets, and ambulances waited outside.
The chairman of the conference, Dr George Nyale, confirmed the outbreak.
“It is true,” he said. “We have confirmed it, but we have contingency measures on the ground.”
Dr Benard Muia, the Nairobi County chief executive for health, said a team from the Ministry of Health had been deployed to the hotel to contain the situation.
On Thursday morning, the Nation saw a test sheet for a patient in Nairobi Hospital that had turned positive for cholera.
Cholera has traditionally been associated with the poor, so much that most of the outbreaks in Nairobi have been traced to Huruma, Mukuru and other informal settlements.
In May this year, several guests at a wedding ceremony in Karen contracted cholera after eating contaminated food. Three of them died.