How diseases killing Kenyans have changed in 60 years

Lung diseases such as pneumonia (chest infection) were the top killers of Kenyans, with pneumonia responsible for two in 10 deaths last year. Photo/Courtesy

Sixty years after Independence, Kenyans still find themselves in hospitals for diseases that were killing in the 1960s, including pneumonia, diarrhoea, cholera, malaria, and the neglected tropical diseases.

Kenya is also experiencing an increase in the burden of diseases that were in the past labelled Western ailments, including diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and cancer, anxiety, depression and heart disease.

The World Health Organisation estimates that in the next four years, countries will suffer more from these new illnesses than traditional diseases.

But thanks to a better healthcare system than what was there at Independence, life expectancy has significantly improved. In 1960, life expectancy stood at 43 years, which means one was likely to die at that age, but it has shot up to more than 67 years.

According to the Economic Survey 2023, the number of registered deaths was high among males compared to females across all age groups except for older people (75 years). During the same period, the proportion of male and female deaths was highest at 75 years and above.

A higher proportion of female deaths was recorded in the older ages (75 years and above).

More deaths were recorded in the elderly people above 75 years with more than 51,300 followed by 55 years and above recording more than 49,800 while 25 to 34 years recorded 22,700 deaths.

More Kenyans died from non-communicable diseases. These are not passed from person to person and typically progress slowly.

Lung diseases such as pneumonia (chest infection) were the top killers of Kenyans, with pneumonia responsible for two in 10 deaths last year.

The top four leading causes of mortality for men and women last year were pneumonia, cancer, sudden death and malaria, with more males than females dying.

According to the Economic Survey 2022, more deaths occurred as a result of pneumonia and cancer at home than in health facilities.

In neonatal, infant and children under-five, the major causes of death were premature birth and birth asphyxia, respiratory infections and pneumonia.

Birth-related complications are also a challenge and cause many deaths in women and babies. Kenya is still struggling with birth-related complications.

Last year, almost four out of 10 deaths of children were caused by these complications, followed by respiratory infections (13%), pneumonia (nine percent), cardiopulmonary and respiratory diseases (8%) and neonatal conditions (8%).

For teenagers, malaria topped the deaths followed by pneumonia and anaemia. Malaria is still not under control in low-income countries despite the leaps made in treatment and prevention.

HIV/Aids deaths have dropped dramatically and the condition is no longer among the top 10 killers but tuberculosis remains a big worry.

Sudden deaths round up the list of top killers and more men than women are in trouble.

Mortality in females of reproductive age and men aged 15-49 years was mainly caused by pneumonia, cancer, sudden death, cardiorespiratory failure and tuberculosis.

The two leading causes of death for the population aged 50-59 and over 60 years were cancer and pneumonia, followed by sudden death and heart disease.

By region, Nairobi recorded the highest number of deaths (67%).

From the economic survey, pneumonia remains the leading cause of deaths nationally for the last two decades. Most of the people who succumbed to pneumonia were aged 15-49 years.

The disease first appeared in Kenyan policy documents in the late 80s, and a lot has changed, including the introduction of a vaccine administered to children at weeks 6, 10 and 14 in 2011.

According to a 2017 study by UK-based organisation Save the Children, pneumonia kills two children under five every minute, an equivalent of one million a year worldwide. The majority of these deaths are in sub-Sahara.

In 2019, 1,333,000 people sought care for pneumonia in hospitals in Kenya, a majority children.

Three years later, pneumonia accounted for 8.8% of the deaths, coming third killer among infants and remains a threat to the under-five with only 33% getting the appropriate antibiotics, despite the interventions.

Those with pneumonia went up with more than 400,000 cases from 2.5 million in 2021 to 2.9 million in 2022.

The pneumonia burden is attributed to inadequate access to healthcare and poor health-seeking behaviour.

According to the Ministry of Health data released last year, Narok, Samburu, West Pokot, Marsabit and Mandera recorded high cases of pneumonia while Kericho, Kisumu, West Pokot, Laikipia, Samburu, Kitui, Nyeri, Nairobi and Uasin Gishu registered the highest neonatal deaths.

The ministry indicated that despite the interventions, pneumonia remained a nightmare to children under the age of five, with only 33% getting the appropriate treatment

“To ensure improvement of the under-five outcome, improved exclusive breastfeeding, the introduction of new childhood vaccines like pneumococcal and rotavirus, advocacy to ensure availability of essential medicines in the facilities and strengthening community inventions to ensure early health-seeking behaviour,” advised Andrew Mulwa, the then director of medical services, preventive and promotive health, at the ministry.

But it is not just diseases killing Kenyans.

From the survey, many Kenyans suffered injuries from road accidents with the number of hospital admissions rising from the previous years.

In 2021, the country recorded about 243, 391 injuries from road accidents and rose to 1.6 million admissions in 2022, taking care of two percent of disease morbidity from 0.3%.

In April, many accidents were reported with about 23 succumbing to their injuries. Apart from the deaths, road accidents leave many with painful emotional and physical scars.

Skin diseases

The survey also revealed that more Kenyans are suffering from skin diseases with the number increasing from 3.7 million in 2021 contributing to four percent to nine million in 2022 (10%).

Joint pains

Joint pains contributed to 1.6 million cases reported in 2022 from 550,000 in 2021 while diarrhoea diseases increased from 3.2 million to four million.

Urinary tract infections climbed from 3.4 million to 3.9 million in 2022, revealing the need for interventions.

Intestinal worms and eye infections contributed to more than 1.7 million diseases in 2022.

Respiratory infection

Respiratory infections caused 5,310 deaths (3,396 males and 2,914 females). The infections are the number seven killer in females and number eight in males. They hit parts of the body such as the sinuses, throat, airways and lungs.

Respiratory diseases may be caused by infection, smoking tobacco or inhaling second-hand tobacco smoke and air pollution.

The symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections include nasal congestion, running nose and sore throat.


Cancer is the second leading cause of death from non-communicable diseases and cases are rising fast. In 2020, 8.3% of the deaths were from cancer with more men than women dying.

Cancer has been the leading killer among those aged 50-59, accounting for 12.7% of the deaths. It killed more females than males at 9.3% and 7.6% in that order.

Cervical cancer leads at nearly 12% followed by breast cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, and oesophageal and prostate types.

In many low and middle-income countries, including Kenya, most cancer cases are diagnosed late when treatment options are limited.

“Diagnosis of cancer can be devastating but when diagnosed early, it can be managed and a lot prevented,” said Catherine Naliaka Nyongesa Watta, a physician and radiation oncologist.


Malaria is among the top killers, accounting for 16.8% of deaths in children aged between 5-14 years.

More than 260,000 African children under the age of five die from malaria annually while in Kenya, nearly 70% of the country’s close to 50 million people are at a grave risk.

Every year, the country reports nearly 3.5 million new clinical cases and 10,700 deaths. With the introduction of the vaccine called RTS,S, developed by the pharmaceutical giant GSK and proven effective six years ago, malaria cases fell nationally from a prevalence of eight percent in 2015 to 5.6% in 2020.

Kenya, alongside Ghana and Malawi, were the only countries globally that the WHO selected to participate in the malaria vaccine pilot.


Diabetes that killed more than 3,000 Kenyans last year, accounts for 3.1% of all the deaths.

Diabetes can occur at any age; in children, it is due to a lack of insulin that is vital to breaking down sugar in the body.

According to the CDC, about 80,000 deaths occur each year due to diabetes.

The WHO estimates that the prevalence of diabetes in Kenya is 3.3% and predicts a rise to 4.5% by 2025.

Unfortunately, Type 1 diabetes, which affects children, cannot be prevented. However, diabetes that develops in adulthood (Type 2) may be avoided. It children, it is fuelled by poor feeding and a sedentary lifestyle.

When one’s blood sugar goes up, it signals the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin acts like a key to let the blood sugar into cells for use as energy.

Diabetes can destroy kidneys, vision, sexual and digestive functions and put the sufferer at risk of getting a stroke and a heart attack. It is also one of the leading causes of limb amputation in adults.

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