Since the beginning of the year, Kenya has reported 277 visceral leishmaniasis, or kala-azar cases, including seven deaths from two counties–Marsabit County in the mid-north of the country and Wajir County in the east of Kenya, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Phlebotomus papatasi sand fly/James Gathany
Phlebotomus papatasi sand fly/James Gathany

Marsabit County has reported a total of 162 cases and three deaths, coming from three sub-counties: Laisamis (101 cases), North Horr (52 cases) and Saku (9 cases), while Wajir County has reported a total of 115 cases including four deaths.

Last month, officials from the National Kala-azar Programme in Nairobi and WHO visited Marsabit County to provide on-the-ground support. The Ministry also dispatched testing kits and medical supplies to the kala-azar-affected counties in Wajir and Marsabit.

WHO says leishmaniasis is caused by a protozoan parasite transmitted by the bite of infected phlebotomine sandflies, and often linked to environmental changes such as deforestation, building of dams, irrigation schemes, and urbanization. The disease is endemic in Kenya, with most cases presenting with a cutaneous form of the disease – causing facial ulcers, disfiguring scars and disability.

The most severe form of the disease (visceral leishmaniasis) attacks the internal organs and, if left untreated, can be fatal in more than 95% of cases within 2 years of onset. There is, therefore, an urgent need to expand the number of screening, diagnostics and treatment sites to improve access to health services within affected communities.

The Ministry of Health and partners, however, face numerous challenges in responding to this outbreak. Some of the challenges include limited equipment and chemicals for vector control, inconsistent supply of commodities (anti-leishmanial drugs are mostly produced by a single manufacturer), limited capacity for laboratory diagnostics, inadequate number of trained personnel in the rapid response teams, and inadequate resources for health promotion and community engagement, outreach activities and mass education. Moreover, the response efforts are being stretched by the concurrent outbreaks of cholera, dengue and measles, as well as the ongoing drought-induced humanitarian crisis within the country.