NAIROBI - Doctors in Kenya's public health facilities have refused to work since December. They are demanding the government implement an agreement it signed in 2013 to raise salaries and improve working conditions. However, the strike is taking a deadly toll on the nation's poor.
Jared Ochieng lost his son Lamarck to complications from leukemia.
"If it were not for the strike, I would have not lost my son," Ochieng said.
Lamarck was diagnosed with leukemia a year ago. When he started experiencing complications in early February, the family took him to the nearest hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital, one of approximately 2,500 public health institutions affected by the nationwide strike.
"When I got there, the doctor who was concerned with the disease that my son was suffering from was nowhere to be found because of the strike," Ochieng said. "I lost my son when he was in Kenyatta, when they were making arrangements to take the boy to Texas [Cancer Facility]."
The center is a private facility in Nairobi, but the high cost makes it an option of last resort for many Kenyans. Some cancer patients have had to suspend treatment until public doctors return to work.
The Kenya Cancer Association says it is getting reports of three deaths a week — a 50 percent increase compared to this time last year, says program director Moses Osani.
"The doctors' strike has significantly affected the cancer patients in that most of them have had interrupted treatment," Osani said. "For example, if someone had to go for a cycle of eight weeks and at the sixth week, doctors went on strike, then their treatment was interrupted, which means they probably had to seek treatment elsewhere."
The strike has also affected emergency medical services.
Judy Nabwani says her son was hit by a speeding vehicle. Twelve hours later, she traced him to a country referral hospital where only basic first aid had been administered.
"He could not move or talk," Nabwani said. "He was just lying there."
She said that a nurse told her the doctors were on strike and that the best thing to do was to refer him to a private hospital. He died before he could be moved. Nabwani said her son would not have died if he had been attended to on time.
His cause of death was internal bleeding due to brain injury.
The striking doctors have refused to resume work, even after union leaders were arrested. The government has said it does not have the funds to implement the collective bargaining agreement it signed in 2013.
Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union spokesperson Dr. Davis Ombui told VOA the union is pushing for much-needed improvements to the health system.
"So far, we actually empathize with the situation," Ombui said. "We know many Kenyans are losing their lives. Even us as doctors, we have relatives, we have friends, we have family and it has affected us all. But the narrative we are sticking to is that we cannot go back and supervise deaths as it were."
In addition to raising salaries, the 2013 deal called for the government to hire nearly 5,000 doctors over a four-year period and equip hospitals with the necessary machines and drugs.
Hopes are high that negotiations underway will end the strike, but for families of the deceased, it is too late.