Meru village terrorised by cancer cases

The day Francis Ntongai’s wife, Mercy Gathure, started vomiting blood is etched in his memory.“It was on a Tuesday morning in July 2016 and I was  basking in the sun when my wife rushed out to vomit,” he recounts.

She was already weak from the medications she was taking for what they had been told was a recurrent acid influx.“My wife had been having eating problems for months and every time we saw a doctor, we were told she had too much acid in her stomach,” he says.

Another visit to Chaaria Mission Hospital, he was told that her oesophagus, the tube that carries food from the back of the mouth to the stomach, was blocked by a tumour.

It was after seeking another opinion at another private hospital in Meru town that a biopsy was done and it was confirmed that she had cancer of the oesophagus.

The cancer was discovered too late, however, and Gathure, who had just turned 38, passed on in July last year.

Ntongai believes that something in his village, Kiegoi in Igembe South sub-county, is to blame for his wife’s cancer.

“It is not just my wife that has suffered and died of that type of cancer. I have lost many neighbours to oesophageal and other types of cancers in close succession. It cannot be a coincidence,” he says.

Just 500 metres from Ntongai’s home, a man who was in his early 50s died of stomach cancer in 2016.

He points at yet another home, less than a kilometre away, where another man in his early 40s died three years ago of a cancerous tumour that had blocked his nasal cavity.

Joseph Kaberia, a nursing officer at a neighbouring Kangeta sub-county hospital, but who is a resident of Kiegoi attests to the seeming increase of cancer cases in his village.

“No month passes before one or two people are diagnosed or dies of cancer. It is beginning to worry us. We do not understand why people, young and old, are being diagnosed with stomach, oesophagus, breast and cervical cancers in particular,” he says.

He points a finger at a neighbouring tea factory as a possible contributor to the unnerving cancer manifestation in the area. He claims the factory buried asbestos roofing material after the government raised the alarm that its components contain cancer-causing elements. Chemicals used on  tea farms, he says, could also be a  contributing factor.

“The chemicals from the  asbestos could be seeping through the soil, polluting it,” he says.

Residents also think that chemicals sprayed by miraa farms at night before harvesting to deter workers from chewing it while harvesting  could be partly responsible.

Near the tea factory, we encounter Rabecca Mukiri, who is planning a fundraiser for her sister who is undergoing chemotherapy for stomach cancer at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH).

Stephene Gitonga, a nurse at Maua Mission Hospital, admits that there has been an increase in cancer cases in the area, although there is still no concrete explanation for it.

“Some have linked the cases to poor handling of grains after harvest, others blame alcoholism and miraa chewing while others point fingers at agricultural chemicals,” he says.

Meru county is leading in the number of new cancer cases recorded annually. At least 15 per cent of all cancer patients referred to KNH in 2015 were from Meru county.

This finding prompted a screening awareness programme by the Meru county government in 2016.

In a bid to establish the extent of the disease prevalence in the county, 40 people from Kiegoi village were found to have symptoms of different types of cancer and they were referred to Meru Referral Hospital for further check-up. Twenty-one men were also  screened for prostate cancer.

The county government is also sponsoring research aimed at solving the puzzle.

Meru Hospice coordinator Gladys Mucee, says they, in collaboration with researchers, medical experts from the county government, county agriculture department, county hospitals and universities in the area have embarked on the process of establishing the causes of cancer in the region.

“We will be analysing data from across the county to ascertain what types of cancers are being diagnosed, the ages of patients, gender, where they come from as well as predisposing factors,” says Mucee.

The hospice, which attends to patients from the larger Meru county, has 415 patients.

Mucee, however, thinks that the high cases of cancer reported in the county could be attributed to higher awareness levels that prompts more residents to find out about their status.

“I really do not believe that cancer cases are higher in this county than in other counties. As a hospice and our partners, we have worked hard over the years to create awareness on cancer. For that reason, Meru people, more than any other county, are going for screening,” she says.

She also says a relatively  better economic situation in the county means that most residents can afford a cancer screening.

“Higher economic status of Meru people could be associated with the higher rates of overall and private cancer screening. For example if you told a Meru resident that they needed Sh4,000 to do a biopsy, they would go ahead and do it. But if someone comes from a poor county, would postpone the exercise to a later date, and instead attend to basic needs such as food,” she explains.

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