Invest more in health research to spur growth

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019 00:00 |
Ministry of Health. Photo/PD/FILE

The debate on the need for low- and middle-income countries to invest in research and adequate budgetary allocations towards healthcare, education, water and sanitation never seems to have a conclusive end. 

Unfortunately, most policy decisions in Kenya are driven by “evidence” generated by social media rather than solid scientific evidence.

The government, and by extension the citizens, thrive on knee-jerk interventions during crises. 

Recently there was a public outcry to clean Nairobi River following an expose in the media.

Yet we all know this will be old news, just like the poisonous sugar debacle. The “prevention is better than cure” message means little to Kenyans. 

For instance, to live a healthy and long life, you need to exercise and eat a low-fat and low-salt diet.

To curb the many cases of road accidents, we need to abide by traffic laws. It obvious that prevention would cost the country far less than what it takes to fix the aftermath. 

The benefits of a healthy population cannot be gainsaid. The list of scientifically proven preventive measures in health is long and includes effectiveness of family planning, health worker delivery and interventions in mother and newborn health to reduce maternal mortality. 

Countries such as Rwanda have already implemented the measures, with resultant major improvements in their maternal and child health statistics that Kenya can only envy. 

Given our limited resources, answers to Kenya’s perennial health problems cannot be in construction of cancer hospitals with PET scans in every county, under the unverified impression that cancer cases are on the rise. This is based on evidence that “many VIPs lives” are being claimed by cancer. 

Let’s not even get into the number of people who die from easily preventable diseases and conditions such as malnutrition, diarrhoeal diseases, pneumonia, tuberculosis and childbirth.

Investing in treatment of terminal illnesses is a good idea, but it should not be at the expense of preventive and promotive health actions like hand-washing, safe faecal disposal, vaccination and consumer product protection?  

In my epidemiology studies, one concept stood out for me – before you act, always ask: what is the evidence?

Is this intervention cost-effective? This is the best approach especially when resources are limited.

Research provides solutions to daily challenges in healthcare by providing tested evidence. When such evidence is used to improve the health of the people, they become more productive. 

In the past, nations banked on exploitation of natural resources and industrialisation for economic development. However, science, technology and innovation is now taking over at a rapid rate. 

Developing countries with about 90 per cent and 10 per cent of global pathology and resources must learn to engage with their developed counterparts on to gain from new technological developments. 

Universities will need to be both financially and human-resource empowered to become competitive in research.

Kenya National Research Fund, on its part, will also have to deliberately invest in setting up efficient research systems within our universities in order to effectively compete for global research funds to address local health priorities. 

The writer is a Clinical Epidemiologist and Associate Dean at Aga Khan University

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