Crucial thyroid cancer drug missing at KNH

Sunday February 03 2019

An illustration of the thyroid gland. A critical medicine for treating thyroid cancer is out of stock at KNH. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Thyroid cancer patients at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) and other public facilities are suffering due to the shortage of a crucial drug, radioactive iodine 131 (I-131). The drug is used in combination with others to treat cancer of the thyroid.

Francis Githinji, 12, was admitted to KNH on January 5. His parents had taken him to a hospital in Nakuru County after the Standard Seven pupil started suffering shortness of breath while in school last year.

“We took him to Bahati Level Four Hospital in June last year, where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and put on medication, which he took for two months. When his problem persisted, he was referred to the Nakuru County Referral Hospital,” his father, Mr Manasse Mwangi, said.

With still no change, he was referred him to KNH on November 8 last year. There he was diagnosed with a thyroid gland deficiency and advised to stop taking the TB medication.

On January 3 this year a biopsy showed he is suffering from cancer of the thyroid gland.



Mr Mwangi has National Hospital Insurance Fund cover but it did not cover the entire cost of the diagnosis. So he paid Sh17,000 from his pocket for the biopsy.

For the past three weeks, Mr Mwangi has been wondering what to do after he was told the drug was out of stock

“Francis has been on oxygen since January 18 after he was taken off the TB drugs,” Mr Mwangi said.

He is required to use radioactive iodine in combination with other drugs. Doctors told him the drug, which is imported from South Africa, is unavailable, and the restocking is yet to be done.

“I was at a loss as to what to do, since they have not suggested an alternative. The doctors told me they are making enquiries on whether the drug could be available at private facilities; but so far we are yet to find it,” he said.


Common treatment for the disease include radioactive iodine 131 Iodine, chemotherapy drugs such as Cisplatin, Adriamycin or its generic variety Rubex, a brand name for Doxorubicin.

Thyroid cancer develops in the thyroid gland in front of the neck, which produces hormones that regulate many body functions.

Consultant oncologist Gladwell Kiarie said its symptoms include swelling of the neck, swelling of the thyroid gland, loss of voice, difficulty breathing, and sometimes swallowing.

Thyroid cancer is associated with genetic syndromes such as multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN’S), conditions that cause excess activity and enlargement in certain endocrine glands.

It is also associated with Cowden Syndrome, a disorder characterised by multiple non-cancerous, tumour-like growths called hamartomas and an increased risk of developing certain cancers.


Cowden Syndrome is associated with an increased risk of developing several types of cancer, particularly cancers of the breast, the lining of the uterus and the thyroid gland.

Dr Kiarie added that thyroid cancer is also associated with iodine deficiency exposure to radiation, goitre and enlargement of the thyroid gland.

She said the disease could be treated through surgery, which includes lobectomy, partial thyroidectomy and tracheotomy. Targeted therapies can also be used.

A source at the hospital told the Nation that it no longer buys the drug for patients.

“The nuclear medicine unit used to stock the drug but it is no longer in stock. The patient should check with the other big private hospitals around the city to see whether they have it,” he said.

Sources at the hospital said the children’s ward had also been hit by the shortage.