A woman eats fast food at a restaurant in Kenya
A woman eats fast food at a restaurant in Kenya

Malnutrition and hunger relentlessly stalk communities in some areas of Kenya, while in others, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are just one bite away.

For decades, the East African country's healthcare system has focused on battling malnutrition and communicable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, dubbed "diseases of the poor."

Pathologist and cancer expert Dr. Geoffrey Mutuma is principal researcher for the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

"We are having a tsunami, and our tsunami now is non-communicable diseases, the diseases which actually we get because of what we eat, because we have changed our diet from the traditional African food to a Western-type of food, the fast foods," he said.

Traditional African dishes contain largely unrefined maize and grains, unrefined carbohydrates and fresh vegetables and fruits, and are high in fiber and low in fat and cholesterol.

But more and more people are consuming processed, refined and fast foods. Fast food outlets and restaurants have proliferated in Nairobi and other locations within the last 10 years.

Nutritionist Anne Mwangi-Thuo attributes this in part to a growing middle class that has money to spend.

"It gives you 'class' if you go and eat chips as opposed to eating ugali [a traditional maize-flour dish]. It gives you class if you can go for what is called in Kenya 'nyama choma,' roasted meat, than when you eat the beans. When they grew up, they ate a lot of the maize and beans and potatoes - they felt that that is the 'poor man's diet,'" she explained.

This middle class, and even those living in rural areas, are walking less and less. More and more people have office jobs where they sit most of the day, and few people take time out of their busy schedules to exercise.

As a result of poor diet and lack of exercise, the so-called "lifestyle diseases," including diabetes, obesity, heart disease and certain cancers, are now taking over.

According to Ministry of Public Health figures, non-communicable diseases contributed to more than 33 percent of deaths in 2007. The ministry estimates that 53 percent of all hospital admissions in Nairobi are due to non-communicable diseases, with diabetes contributing 27 percent of the total.

Diabetes is Kenya's number one non-communicable disease, yet has received scant attention, says consultant physician/endocrinologist and diabetes expert Dr. Eva Njenga.

"We have actually a double burden of infectious diseases and the non-communicable diseases," she said.  "Diabetes is now being linked to a level whereby we actually have more people dying from diabetes than from HIV. And that should actually ring a bell and raise an alarm for our government."

But the lack of specialized equipment and expertise makes Kenya's health-care system ill-equipped to cope with diabetes and other non-infectious diseases, says the Kenya Medical Research Institute's Dr. Mutuma.

"It is very expensive," he added.  "They are chronic diseases, they require a lot of treatment, they require a lot of care, and we are not ready for that."

Kenyan health experts say the government cannot expect help from international donors to prevent and treat non-communicable diseases. The experts say they think there is a perception in the West that so-called "diseases of the rich" are not found in so-called "poor" countries like Kenya.