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Top killers of women and how to avoid them

Lady killers: The leading causes of disease and death in women

The life expectancy of women in Kenya has been going up over the years, estimated at 66 years in 2012.

The life expectancy of women in Kenya has been going up over the years, estimated at 66 years in 2012. However, women continue to be assaulted by various ailments that put them at risk of early death. Of the 190,637 Kenyans who died in 2016, a good number (94,130) succumbed to 10 diseases. Ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8, we take a look at how these and other prevalent conditions affect women.


Most maternal deaths are due to causes directly related to pregnancy and childbirth unsafe abortion and obstetric complications such as severe bleeding, infection, hypertensive disorders, and obstructed labour.

Other causes of maternal deaths such as malaria, diabetes, hepatitis, and anaemia, are aggravated by pregnancy.

Top three causes of maternal death are obstetric haemorrhage (40 per cent), hypertensive disorders (15 per cent) and pregnancy-related infections (10 per cent).

Fifteen per cent of the deaths from obstetric haemorrhage were due to ruptured uterus.

362 women die for every 100,000 live births.

Fourteen per cent of all deaths of women in their childbearing years (age 15 to 49) happen either during pregnancy, childbirth or within two months after birth.


Complications from abortion are one of the leading causes of hospitalisation and death among Kenyan women.

465,000 induced abortions were recorded in 2012.

120,000 women sought treatment after abortion in 2012.

75 per cent of abortion-related complications are moderate to severe. They included fever, sepsis, shock, organ failure.


Pregnant women and children under five face the highest risk of contracting malaria, especially those who live around Lake Victoria and at the coast.

In 2016, Malaria was the second leading cause of death, accounting for 16,000 deaths (16 per cent).

More than 70 per cent of Kenyans are at risk of getting malaria.

Lower risk by sleeping under an insecticide-treated bed net and through indoor spraying.


Cancer claimed 15,762 lives in Kenya in 2016.

For women, the leading cancers are breast and cervical cancers.

Breast cancer affects 34 out of 100,000 people. Cervical cancer affects 25 out of 100,000 people.

Women are most likely to die from breast cancer between ages 65 and 69 years.

Risk factors include genetic predisposition, smoking, alcohol use, inadequate physical inactivity and poor diet and infections (e.g. human papilloma virus in cervical cancer).

80 per cent of cancers are reported at advanced stage when little can be done.

Lower risk by limiting alcohol, don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, exercise and breastfeed if you can. Practise safe sex to reduce chances of getting HPV and vaccinate girls against HPV before they become sexually active

Don’t forget your breast self-exam every month and a breast exam by a health worker every year. And regular cervical cancer screening


Women are more vulnerable to HIV infections, with a national HIV prevalence rate of seven per cent.

The high burden of HIV/AIDS in Kenya accounts for an estimated 29 per cent of annual adult deaths and 20 per cent of maternal mortality.

There are 775,939 (6.3% prevalence) women living with HIV out of 1,517,707 (5.9% prevalence) Kenyans with HIV. 39,868 women were newly infected in 2015, out of 77,647 new infections in Kenya. 10,681 women died from HIV-related complications.

Unsafe sex and sexual violence are linked to HIV. 51 per cent of new HIV infections occurred among young people aged 15-24, and young women and girls accounted for 33 per cent (23,312) of those infections.

This could be because only 40 per cent women with multiple sex partners reported using a condom. Almost four per cent of women reported having multiple sex partners and 27 per cent of girls don’t know how to prevent HIV.


In 2016, 4,166 Kenyans died from accidents other than road accidents.

Every year, one in five women suffer from unintentional injuries.

Cuts are the most common causes of unintended injury in women, accounting for 60 per cent of the cases.

The second most common cause of unintended injury in women is falls (40 per cent), followed by burns (20 per cent).


In 2016, 8,165 Kenyans died from anaemia. A new report on maternal deaths showed that 14% die from anaemia.

Women in childbearing years (15 to 49) are prone to anaemia (iron deficiency) due to loss of blood during menstruation every month as well as increased nutrient demands during pregnancy.

27 per cent of women of childbearing age in Kenya have iron deficiency.

38 per cent of pregnant women in Kenya suffer from anaemia.

Iron deficiency anaemia can be resolved using supplements and diet changes.

Worm infestation and malaria are linked to anaemia, particularly in pregnant women.

Iron supplements and folic acid are usually recommended for pregnant women because they often don’t meet their iron demands through diet alone.


5,352 Kenyans died of heart disease in 2016.

Diseases of the circulatory system are known to cause 10 per cent of indirect maternal deaths in Kenya, while pre-existing hypertension causes one per cent of maternal deaths.

Oestrogen provides some protection against heart disease in women.

Diabetes raises the risk of heart disease in women.

Heart disease in women is sneaky; it is more likely to present in symptoms other than chest pain. Take note if you experience pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach. Also watch out for shortness of breath or nausea and vomiting.

Lower your risk by maintaining healthy blood pressure, healthy weight, healthy diet and regular exercise.

Also, limit alcohol intake, stop smoking, manage diabetes and stress.


4,809 Kenyans died from road traffic accidents in 2016.

Three per cent of women in Kenya have been involved in road traffic accidents.

In 2017, 3943 Kenyans were seriously injured, while 4,353 were slightly injured in accidents.

Most of the victims were pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists, particularly on Sundays.

Most accidents are attributed to speeding, reckless driving, dangerous overtaking, lane indiscipline and drunk driving.


Of 138, 105 Kenyans who contract tuberculosis every year, 82, 000 are treated and 4,735 died from the disease in 2016.

For every 100,000 Kenyans, 558 suffer from tuberculosis. Most Kenyans with TB (83) per cent are HIV-negative.

Among women, TB is more prevalent in those aged over 65.

Tuberculosis is also an indirect cause of death among mothers, linked with seven per cent of the cases.

40 per cent of TB cases are undiagnosed and untreated.

One undiagnosed and untreated person can infect up to 15 people.

Caused by bacteria and spread through droplets e.g. through coughing, sneezing, talking.

Symptoms include: Persistent cough, blood when coughing, chest pain, unintentional weight loss, fatigue, fever, night sweats


4,374 Kenyans died from meningitis in 2016. 

The risk catching meningitis is particularly high in the northern part of the country.

Caused by bacteria, the disease affects the thin lining (meninges) that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

It is spread through air droplets, saliva and throat secretions from sneezing, coughing and kissing to people in close and prolonged contact with the infected person or a carrier of the bacteria.

Symptoms include: headache, fever, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, confusion, vomiting.

Fatal in up to 10 per cent of patients, even in those who receive prompt treatment.

Treatable with antibiotics and preventable through vaccination, hand hygiene, good cough etiquette.



 53% of women were tested for HIV and received their results

 45% women have experienced physical violence

 14% of women have experienced sexual violence

 29% have undergone FGM

 58% pregnant women attended antenatal clinics

 62% do not get adequate exercise