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By Muchemi Wachira(Courtesy of “Daily Nation “)

Every month, at least one person dies in Marsabit, Eastern Kenya, sometimes two. And they are not killed by the cattle rustlers the area is notorious for.

They die of cancer.

The deaths are increasingly becoming more of a menace than cattle raiders.

The cancer has wreaked havoc on the people of the vast Chalbi desert and surrounding areas. The people are mainly pastoralists who keep sheep, goats and camels. A few have cattle.

Kargi Location in Laisamis District is the worst affected. Others are Maikona, Kalacha, North Horr, Bubisa and Dukana in Chalbi District.

“We get cases of at least two to three patients from Marsabit every week, who are referred to this hospital for biopsy (further examination). And when they are diagnosed, some but not all, suffer from cancer,” said the medical officer of health at Meru’s Chogoria Mission Hospital, a Dr Odongo.

Most of these patients are later referred to Kenyatta National Hospital but the majority prefer to go back home and wait to die.

Dr Odongo could not give details of the disease, because rules require that he first get permission from the medical board.

No official record

Nevertheless, the medical officer of health in charge of the larger Marsabit, Dr M.S. Ndakalu, is aware of the cases.

“These cases are there. But we have not been able to document them as it is only recently that we got a surgeon (at Marsabit District Hospital) to treat such problems,” said Dr Ndakalu.

Even in the absence of official figures of those who have died of cancer, Kargi Dispensary, run by Marsabit Catholic diocese, has kept the records.

Records from the only health centre in Kargi Location show that 38 people have died of the disease since 2006.

Eleven of them died last year and a similar number in 2006. In 2007 the number was 12. This year, four people had died by June 30, while two others were bedridden at home.

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“All these patients first come to our dispensary having the same symptoms and we refer them to Marsabit district hospital. Some are later referred to other health facilities,” said nurse Asunta Galgitelle. The symptoms include difficulty in swallowing meat, the area’s staple.

“They can only take milk, they say a wound develops in the throat,” Ms Galgitelle told the Nation during a visit to the dispensary.

Most of the victims are men and women over 40 years. The nurse said out of the 38 who died, there were a few cases of breast cancer.

In Dukana, chief Tuye Katelo says in 2004 they had been asked by their former MP, Dr Bonaya Godana, now deceased, to give the names of suspected cancer victims.

“By then, we had 38 cases who had died after they were referred back home from different hospitals. Several others have died since then but we don’t have official data,” he said.

At the time, people living in the desert and in North Eastern Province had questioned the clusters of deaths witnessed in the two areas.

In Marsabit, locals blame the underground water. The desert has no piped water and people rely on boreholes and shallow wells. They say they have seen herds of livestock dying after consuming the water.

Twice, hundreds of livestock have died after taking the water. The first was in the early 1990s, when a flock of sheep and goats died in Balesa, near Dukana.

“They had taken water from a borehole that had just been drilled next to an abandoned well. The well had been dug by an oil exploration company,” recalled Mr Ali Adano, a community elder in Dukana.

Mr Adano cannot remember how many animals died that day. He only said the borehole was abandoned for fear of claiming more livestock.

The second case occurred in 2002 in Kargi Location. More than 7,000 sheep and goats died after drinking water from a borehole.

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Like in Balesa, the borehole had been drilled next to a oil well dug by Amoco Kenya Ltd, in the 1980s. Amoco is a multinational corporation based in the United States. Some locals claim the company discharged nuclear waste in the desert before halting its project.

There are others who suspect relief food supplies to be the cause of the cancer while some point at tobacco and khat(miraa), chewed by a big number of people in the area.

After numerous complaints, the government appointed an inter-ministerial committee to investigate the cancer claims in 2004.

The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) led the committee, whose findings have been handed over to the Environment ministry.

Nuclear science

“Results of the inter-ministerial committee found out that the claims were not true,” said Nema’s chief corporate communications manager Ruth Musembi.

Another oil and gas exploration is set to take place in the same desert and in North Eastern Province. People have demanded to know how safe their underground water is.

Nema has already carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in the two areas.

The EIA says an Amoco representative told communities that results from the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Nuclear Science showed there was no nuclear or hazardous materials buried in the abandoned wells.

What then is the cause of the widespread cancer cases in Chalbi Desert?. Dr Ndakalu does not rule out water. “Several tests have been done on the waters but local engineers have not communicated the results to me,” he said.

Tests done on waters in Kargi have confirmed that they are not safe for human consumption.

A team from the Water Resources Management Authority (Warma) recently analysed water from boreholes and wells in the area and found them to be hazardous.

“It is evident that parameters, namely conductivity, sodium chloride, nitrate and total dissolved solids, are still above the World Health Organisation recommended values and pose human health risks if ingested,” warns the Warma report on water quality.

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The February 4, 2009, report recommends the use of alternative sources of water for domestic purposes. A Marsabit Catholic diocese priest had sent samples of the water to Italy for analysis.

The results of the test the church released earlier this year showed that in some cases, the mineral and chemical content of the tested water “are not within the limits of the law”.

Arsenic in water

And in 2007, a local NGO, Global Concern Incorporated, got an American team from William Consulting Incorporated to test the water in Kargi.

The WCI team reported that levels of nitrate, nitrite and arsenic were high in Kargi waters. According to the report, nitrite, which is toxic, was the likely cause of death among sheep and goats in 2002.

“WCI conducted specific tests for arsenic and chromium. The reason for the tests in regard to these two minerals is that an excessive amount of arsenic has been cited as causing cancer of certain internal organs, and chromium has been cited as causing throat cancer,” the report says in part.

No chromium was found in the waters of Kargi, therefore, cases of throat cancer in the area cannot be attributed to the mineral.

WCI, however, found that excessive amounts of arsenic could be to blame for the frequency of cancer.

“Arsenic in excessive amounts may cause external skin problems and/or cancer related to internal organs … lung, bladder, liver and kidney,” says the report.

Filtering device

Global Concern helped residents to install a Kanchan Filter, a mechanical device that removes arsenic from water. It is expected that the filter will remove at least 87 per cent of the arsenic.

But even after filtering the water, people have continued to die, and now residents feel they must move from the area to escape death.

About Whispers from the North

Whispers from the North is an online platform that appreciates the ecological, cultural and socio-economic diversities of Northern Kenya. We also acknowledge that the lives of the communities of northern Kenya has been shaped by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which have led to complex challenge that calls for a multifaceted approach.

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