KENYA: $12.5 million PEPFAR grant for Nairobi

The US government has extended a US$12.5 million grant to the University of Nairobi to boost medical training, potentially plugging the country's biting shortage of qualified health sector personnel. The funding will help strengthen medical training and increase the number of trained health workers in East Africa's biggest economy.

The Nairobi grant was awarded under a funding partnership between the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, which has recently seen US$130 million going to strengthen health training at universities in a dozen African countries.

"The primary goal of the University of Nairobi grant is to strengthen and build clinical and research capacity, and it is expected to have a large impact on improving human resource capacity for health and long-term health outcomes in Kenya," said the university in a statement last week.

The grant places the university in pole position in the competition for students seeking medical training, in a market where demand has outrun supply.

Kenya is grappling with a personnel shortage in its health sector, worsening the health care crisis in a country where diseases like Malaria and HIV-Aids continue to wreak havoc, killing thousands annually.

The grant to the university is further expected to boost government efforts to push through a mega-plan that will see at least seven key public hospitals partner with local universities to offer medical training.

Millions of dollars have been spent over the past year to face-lift the hospital facilities and equip them in readiness for the partnerships, and they are expected to admit their first students by the end of the year, according to Kenya's Medical Services Minister, Peter Anyang' Nyong'o.

"This country has a huge problem in diagnostic services, and if you don't get your diagnosis right you will end up overdosing patients, under-dosing them or treating the wrong disease," said Nyong'o, who emphasised the need to train students thoroughly in diagnostics and to ensure health facilities are well equipped.

The plan will see Maseno University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology or JKUAT, Kisii University College and Catholic University join the list of institutions offering medical training.

The University of Nairobi, Moi University and Kenya Medical Training College are currently the main institutions offering medical training. Health ministry officials say the biggest challenge to meeting human capital needs for the health sector has been lack of hospitals that meet the criteria for training.

"The funds will help extend the reach of medical training by implementing a decentralised, community-based programme that optimises training in primary care and preventive medicine around HIV-Aids," said University of Nairobi spokesperson Charles Sikulu.

"This will be done by training and accrediting local medical doctors and specialists at four district hospitals annually, which will become rotation sites for medical students, interns and postgraduates. Distance learning and mobile phone applications will also be introduced for training and care at these decentralised sites."

Kenya is grappling with a shortage of close to 8,000 medical personnel, which has been blamed partly on brain drain and a general failure by local institutions to produce a steady stream of trained personnel. Institutions are not allowed to train medical personnel without affiliation to a recognised hospital.

Estimated health ministry statistics indicate that the country has fewer than 15 cancer specialists against an average of 18,000 known cancer cases being diagnosed every year.

Health experts have warned that failure to fix the human capital shortfall risks squandering the billions of dollars the country spends on health every year.

The government plans to spend US$640 million on the health sector this year, making it the third largest item in the national budget after education and infrastructure. Under the new arrangement, Nyanza Provincial Hospital, Thika District Hospital and Kisii Level 5 Provincial Hospital will partner with Maseno, JKUAT and Kisii University College respectively to offer courses in clinical medicine.

Catholic University has already signed an affiliation agreement with Mbagathi and Mathari hospitals, to offer degree programmes in nursing, while Outspan Medical College will link up with Nyeri and Karatina hospitals under a partnership that is awaiting the ministry's approval.

It is estimated that only 380 new doctors join the workforce annually from Nairobi and Moi universities. The University of Nairobi, which has partnered with Kenyatta National Hospital, accounts for the bulk of the trainees (at around 300), with the rest coming from Moi University.

According to the 2009 Economic Survey, the number of registered medical students increased from 3,761 to 5,814 between the 2004-05 and 2008-09 academic years. The increase was attributed to introduction of medical courses at Kenya Methodist University, University of Eastern Africa (Baraton), Aga Khan University and Kenyatta University.