KNH stops cancer treatment over coronavirus

Doctors to decide who gets life saving treatment and who does not

In Summary

• KNH has three radiotherapy machines, the only ones available in Kenyan public hospitals.

• David Onjala, 52, from Maseno, has been waiting for his turn since January, but was told to retirn home yesterday.

Radiotherapy machine at Kenyatta National Hospital Photo/File
Radiotherapy machine at Kenyatta National Hospital Photo/File

Close to 60 cancer patients were yesterday sent home after the Kenyatta National Hospital suspended most radiotherapy treatment.

The patients were due to begin radiotherapy but the staff at the oncology unit said treatment for most beginners had been suspended indefinitely. 

Treatment of existing patients will continue, after which the hospital plans to ration who gets the life-saving therapy to kill cancerous cells and who will be left out.


"The management says we should not expose cancer patients to coronavirus, so we are rationing treatment," one nurse told the Star. 

Kenya has 15 patients with Covid-19 — the disease caused by the coronavirus. The government expects the numbers to rise in the coming weeks. 

Head of oncology unit Dr Catherine Nyongesa declined to explain the rationale for rationing cancer treatment. 

"I cannot speak on behalf of KNH, that needs to come from the corporate department," she said. 

KNH has three radiotherapy machines, the only ones available in a Kenyan public hospital.

Each of the machines attends to between 60 and 80 cancer patients daily, which means about 200 patients undergo radiotherapy every day. 

However, several private hospitals in Nairobi said they were still open for business. 

Texas Cancer Centre on Mbagathi Road said it was still seeing and offering treatment to new patients. 


KNH patients are often poor and cannot afford sessions in private hospitals. 

David Onjala, 52, from Maseno, arrived in Nairobi on Monday last week for several blood tests before treatment.

"I completed the tests last Friday and was told to come today (Monday) for treatment planning, followed by the first session of radiotherapy," he told the Star.

"I arrived early at 6am. At 9am the nurses arrived and told us to return home upcountry until further notice or until they call us. They said it is because of corona[virus]," he said. 

KNH CEO Evanson Kamuri declined to explain how the decision was arrived at. 

Onjala was diagnosed with advanced colorectal cancer in January.

He was placed on KNH's waitlist for radiotherapy, with his turn coming up yesterday. 

"I have been staying at a hostel here in Nairobi since Monday. I do not know what to do because fares back to Kisumu have doubled since last week. It will be difficult to come back to Nairobi," he said. 

People on cancer treatment have compromised immune systems and are among the groups of people at greater risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.

But advocates say stopping treatment could also put patients at risk for even more problems, including tumour progression and shorter survival times.

Vice chair of the Non Communicable Diseases Alliance of Kenya David Makumi advised health facilities to increase treatment hours and work on weekends to serve all patients.

"Most centres work 8am to 5pm and some do not operate on weekends. But providers should look for more creative ways to ensure cancer services are not delayed," he said. 

"You can operate maybe 12 hours a day and also open on weekends so that patients are spread out and not crowded."

Makumi also said patients must be explained properly when these measures are being taken. 

"They are anxious and fearful, and need reassurance," he said.

(edited by o. owino)