Stephen Onyango, popularly known as Sossi, is the personification of the anguish the nurses’ strike caused Kenyans.
In the five months the caregivers stayed away from work, Sossi whiled away the time in the corner of Kisumu County Hospital’s psychiatric ward with a black polythene bag on his hand waiting for well-wishers to come and hand him food.
When we visited him two weeks ago, we found him in the company of two male and three female colleagues who had been moved to Ward Three to avoid mixing with other patients since there was no one to look after them.
When he heard the security lady open the grilled door, he walked towards us asking for money to buy milk and bread. He also wanted to get a shave and to buy himself a pair of slippers.
Sossi has been at the facility for six months and wishes he was somewhere else “other than this prison”.
Everything about the ward reeked of neglect and abandonment. The plates and cups were dirty and scattered on the floor, the ward was filthy. The metallic beds had no mattresses and Sossi and his colleagues slept on the floor.
With the nurses away, they were being taken care of by security guards, who gave them drugs and food, depending on availability.
Other than outpatients, the other biggest victims of the strike were children, who missed out on important vaccines against some of the world’s most debilitating diseases, including polio, pneumonia, meningitis, measles, influenza, and hepatitis.
Medical experts now warn that these diseases, long identified as among the biggest health threats in the region, could ravage the nation in the coming years if hundreds of these vulnerable children are exposed to their vectors.
Juliana Otieno, the medical superintendent at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital in Kisumu, told the Nation that a medical catastrophe has been in the making the months that nurses have been away.
“The threat of death by disease isn’t the only medical consequence of skipping vaccinations,” she said. “An unvaccinated child faces lifelong health difficulties. The coming crisis is huge and we must prepare to address it. The cost of treating unvaccinated children will be very expensive for the government,” said Dr Otieno.
When a child misses a polio vaccine and there is an attack, for instance, the likelihood of that child going down with the virus is huge because the child is not covered.
The World Health Organisation recommends an oral polio vaccine dose immediately a baby is born — called a zero dose — followed by a series of three primary doses and a minimum one inactivated dose.
“Vaccines are the safest way to protect children and pregnant mothers from a long list of serious and potentially life-threatening illnesses,” said Dr Otieno. “They protect children by preparing their immune systems to recognise and fight serious, deadly diseases.”
Some of the vaccines administered to children in public hospitals include polio, BCG (to fight tuberculosis), DPT (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis), Hb (Hepatitis B) and the most recent addition, Hib, which has proven effective in reducing early childhood meningitis in many countries.
At birth, infants are injected with BCG on their arms. This is mandatory as stipulated in Kenya’s regular schedule of vaccinations, developed by the Ministry of Health.
The vaccine helps protect the newborn against tuberculosis (TB), including TB Meningitis (an infection of the brain) and miliary TB (widespread infection).
The vaccine contains a weakened strain of TB bacteria, which builds up immunity and encourages the body to fight TB if infected with it without causing the disease itself. It gives protection in up to 80 per cent of people for up to 15 years.
At the height of the strike, patients with mental illness or substance addiction were discharged or turned away, and maternity services were barely functional, according to a report by The Lancet.
Essential services were delivered where possible but people were either forced to seek care at private facilities where the queues were long and the care costs are high, or to return home.
Yet a 2016 Pew Research Centre study showed that Kenyans are more concerned with public service delivery than anything else, and that health care is one of their top ten concerns.