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Health and health care in Kenya

As an expat, staying fit and healthy is essential for a successful and happy life in your new home country. Here’s how to maintain your health and well-being in Kenya.

Prepare for your trip

In common with any trip overseas, it’s always a very good idea to pay a visit to your local health care practitioner before you travel to make sure that all of your family vaccinations are up to date. As well as the regular childhood vaccinations against mumps, measles, rubella, TB and tetanus, you’ll also have to ensure that you’re protected against a whole raft of other illnesses before setting foot on Kenyan soil. The World Health Organization (WHO) also stresses the need to carry your immunisation certificates, just ask your health care practitioner about these before you set off on your travels. Rest assured that listing specific vaccinations doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to run the risk of catching any of these diseases, the whole idea is that you’ll keep healthy and safe during your Kenyan stay.

Vital vaccinations for Kenya:

  • Yellow fever (for all over nine months)
  • Polio
  • Typhoid
  • TDP – tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis
  • Rabies
  • Meningococcal infections
  • Cholera – in 2017 Kenya reported 3,967 cases of this frightening disease
  • Hepatitis A and B

Keeping yourself healthy when in Kenya

Many health care precautions are a matter of common sense. If possible, you shouldn’t drink tap water as there is a risk of contamination, so opt for bottled water instead. This applies to ice cubes in drinks, something that many forget about. When cooking, make sure that all food, including meat and fish is cooked properly. Raw food should be avoided, though in the case of fruit and vegetables careful washing of the produce should protect you.

As Kenya is home to disease-carrying mosquitos it’s important to arm yourself against these pesky creatures. Zika is also prevalent in certain parts of Kenya. There is currently no vaccination against malaria or dengue fever, though you can take important steps to protect yourself from these mosquito-borne infectious diseases. Anti-malarials, while not preventing the disease, will alleviate the symptoms – it's best to ask your health care practitioner before you travel about the type of anti-malarial that you’ll need and any possible side effects. Annually around 2 million deaths across the planet are caused by malaria, it’s important to take this disease and all precautions against it very seriously.

Even though there isn’t a cure for malaria, there are ways of keeping the disease at bay, and one of these is to arm yourself with some insect repellent that contains DEET. This will help protect you and it is effective. Try to wear light colours and keep exposed areas of skin to a minimum, especially if you’re going out at night, it may be hot, but you’ll be able to deal with the heat, mosquito bites are more dangerous. You can protect yourself in your hotel or home by investing in mosquito nets to hang over beds.

Kenya has some ferocious spiders and snakes that can cause serious harm. The bite of the black button spider can be life threatening to a child, and the boomslang, the green mamba and the cobra snakes can all be found in Kenya. The habitat of both dangerous snakes and spiders applies more to rural areas than the city, but it’s wise to be cautious. If you’re at all worried about snakes and snakebites the Africapoint blog has some fantastic photographs and advice.

However tempting rivers or lakes might look on a scorching day, these waterways are also home to numerous parasitic insects. It’s generally a sensible rule of thumb to restrict your bathing to the sea or a chlorinated swimming pool.

What happens if I become ill in Kenya?

Kenya is well equipped with private hospitals, and the Kenyan constitution states that ‘the highest attainable standard of health’ is the right of every citizen. The public health care system across Kenya varies, and most expats steer clear of the public system. The Nairobi-based Aga Khan University Hospital has satellite clinics across Kenya and other private clinics and hospitals do exist. When living in Nairobi, in an emergency, you can visit either the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, or the Kenyatta National Hospital, both are public facilities, but you will be expected to pay unless you have private health insurance. Some provincial government hospitals can offer intensive care facilities, and consultant specialists. According to the United Nations (UN), four out of five Kenyans have no access to health insurance, with out-of-pocket payments pushing almost one million people into poverty. Private health care is usually selected by expats due to higher hygiene standards and the availability of experienced doctors and excellent hospital equipment. In a medical emergency, the telephone number to call is 999. Also, check out this useful website to bookmark. Your insurance provider should be able to fly you to clinics outside Kenya should the need arise. Or, you can sign up to AMREF (African Medical and Research Foundation) Flying Doctors, which operates throughout East Africa and can dispense on-the-spot treatment or transport you to a hospital in an emergency. This service is invaluable if you are living in a remote rural area. English is one of Kenya’s official languages so you should have no problem making yourself understood in an emergency.

If you’re looking for a doctor, word of mouth is usually the best recommendation, and there’s also a Facebook page where you can read about patients’ genuine experiences with a wide variety of doctors. Most of the major hospitals house pharmacies. Private pharmacies can also be found in shopping malls.

HIV and AIDS

About 1.6 million of the Kenyan population have HIV, and in 2016 there were 62,000 new HIV infections registered. The virus affects all age groups and most sections of the population. Prevalence is highest in Kenya’s western regions, and the country has the ‘4th largest HIV epidemic in the world’. Despite the fact that sodomy is illegal in Kenya, the country has gained a reputation for some tolerance towards the LGBT community. Local taboos do still exist, though. The highest figures for HIV are among the gay community, intravenous drug users and sex workers.

The Kenyan government is fighting the virus with a retroviral programme and free distribution of condoms; 72% of the population has been tested for AIDS, which is a testament to the state’s efforts in fighting the epidemic. If you are ever considering unprotected sex when in Kenya, just think and use protection.

Pollution

Kenya suffers from problems arising from pollution. Both air and water contamination are high. According to a report in Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper, 14,000 people die every year as a result of air pollution. Commonly used cooking fuels such as firewood and kerosene, and car exhaust fumes are mainly to blame. The number of people who use cars as transport has grown by 12% per year. There is no air quality monitoring in Kenya.

Nairobi has a growing air pollution problem. An article published in The Conversation revealed that this is partly due to the city’s habit of burning garbage and the growing construction industry. Figures released by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that Nairobi has 70% above the recommended maximum level for ‘fine particulate matter in the city’s outdoor air’.

The problem isn’t just outside. Indoor air pollution is also prevalent thanks to wood burning in a domestic setting. In some poorer areas of the city, households resort to burning plastic bags and other lethal contaminants when wood or kerosene is in short supply. This practice leads to toxic hydrocarbons being released into the home and atmosphere. Poor domestic ventilation exaggerates the problem which can produce cancers, respiratory illnesses and affect child development.

Work has already started to try to alleviate the problem of domestic air pollution. In 2016, representatives from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), researchers, policymakers and residents of the worst affected areas of Nairobi got together to explain why the problem happened and how, realistically, the quality of the air could be improved. Because of this and other conferences concerning the environment, air pollution monitors have been installed in Nairobi.

You may also be interested in Health and Happiness: your guide to a stress-free expat life.

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