Despite the raging coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, there has been panic in Kenya over a recent spike in pneumonia, one of the complications of severe COVID-19. Data from the National Registry of Diseases shows that between January and March, the number of pneumonia cases increased from 137,667 to 195,504, while the data for March is not complete.

“An increase from January and then a plateau is not similar for the same period in 2019,” a source at the Ministry of health suspects that the numbers are still increasing. Experts say the rise in the pneumonia cases should not be attributed to Coronavirus. However, they suspect three scenarios- it could be people dying of COVID-19 pneumonia while on medication for bacterial pneumonia, and this may have occurred even earlier before the first case was reported, with the rains that came at the beginning of the year which has led to the increase.

Although, much attention has been shifted to the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, leaving little focus on pneumonia and other infectious diseases in hospitals. Following the death of children in Kilifi County, the Respiratory Society of Kenya has cautioned clinicians that any case of pneumonia should be treated as suspected cases of COVID-19 until proven to be pneumonia alone.

Jeremiah Chakaya, a practicing respiratory physician allied to the society in an interview The Nation explained that it is very difficult to differentiate between COVID-19 and pneumonia. He also added that any respiratory infection including coronavirus, is going to present with the same telltale signs when it becomes severe-cough, fever, difficulty in breathing and shortness of breath.

Pneumonia, Kenya’s number one child killer claimed 21,584 lives in 2017. Though it was initially thought to be caused by bacteria, the Pneumonia Etiology Research for Child Health study found that viruses caused most of the severe pneumonia cases by 61 percent.

The study which was conducted in Kenya and six other countries with a high burden of pneumonia showed that the Respiratory Syncytial Virus was the leading pathogen with 31 percent in all the sites. Bacteria, which are eliminated from the body by antibiotics, only cause 27 percent of pneumonia.

With the surge of outbreaks in Africa, it may be right to say that neglected diseases are killing more people than COVID-19, however, it is time to address several other infectious diseases that kill millions annually. These kinds of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a broad group of communicable diseases that affect more than two billion people and cost developing economies billions of dollars every year.

Lassa Fever is an example of an endemic in Nigeria and other West African countries such as Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, and Sierra Leone. This year alone, there have been nearly 4,000 suspected Lassa fever cases and more than 160 deaths.

Furthermore, Tuberculosis is another neglected disease. According to the World Health Organization(WHO), about 10 million people globally were infected with tuberculosis in 2018 including over one million children.

For as long as many of these diseases continue to plague the African continent, there needs to be more research into these conditions with countries allocating funds to healthcare and health research to fight such outbreaks.

By Ahmed Iyanda

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