“It is better to have HIV, than to have cancer”.

This statement was made by Akinyi, the mother who lives with her 7-year-old son on the compound with me and looks after the area. We were sitting in the kitchen, her in front of the wood-burning cooking stove stirring milk tea, me sitting on the floor that had been smeared with cow dung and clay a few days prior. We sit most days and talk, becoming more frank as our comfort with each other increases. This statement, however, took me by surprise. She explained her reasoning for saying this: in Kenya, ARVs are relatively easy to get, as NGOs and rich Western countries have flooded clinics and hospitals with either free, or very inexpensive forms. But as HIV becomes less of a death threat, and more of a chronic illness, other diseases are starting to be identified as life-threatening… cancer is among them. I saw an article a few weeks back in one of the Kenyan national newspapers about breast cancer’s large impact in Kenya. But I didn’t think much of it, as cancer is a problem most everywhere. But as Akinyi continued to tell me, there isn’t much equipment or drug supply to treat cancer, making it inaccessible to the vast majority of Kenyans, rich or poor. In Kenya, if you have cancer, you go back to your house and lay and rest until you pass… cancer literally means death. I think back over the weeks I’ve been here, and realize I’ve been seeing it, assuming people were getting treatment… most recently, a man with a hugely distended, perfectly spherical stomach, coming out of the general hospital. The longer I live here, and the more I see, I believe more strongly that health care isn’t simply a universal human right, it is a privilege, and one that many don’t have. Universally, human bodies falter, fail and are in need of repair to continue life… and this care isn’t available. How do we lower the cost of health care universally? I read an article recently in the New England Journal of Medicine discussing the cost versus need of HPV vaccination in developing countries… in the US, this cost is around $360, far above what most families in rural Kenya earn in 3 months. And yet, cervical cancer is the second most deadly cancer for women, regardless of country or region.

There are far more health issues in Kenya than cancer and HIV, and it seems that despite the effort put in so far, there is so much still that is totally wrong… structurally, we are flawed. And I feel incredible guilt in having the ability of having access to such a higher level of health care in a mere 26 hours of flying time. It is very different growing up hearing that life isn’t fair, and actually seeing how unfair it is… perhaps this is naivety why should one life have that much more opportunity than another?

1 thought on ““It is better to have HIV, than to have cancer”.

  1. StephenS

    Hi… you raise a great question at the end of your post. I’m all for companies making profit, free market and all of that, but not when people’s lives are compromised as a result. I mean, we didn’t do anything to cause our diabetes, why should we be punished?

    I’m really enjoying reading about your experiences. Please keep writing!


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