Kenya could experience a surge in inbound medical tourism in the coming years following the historic launch of CyberKnife radiotherapy services for the treatment of cancer at the Kenyatta University Teaching, Referral and Research Hospital (KUTRRH).
A team of Doctors at the KUTRRH have entered into the books of history after pioneering CyberKnife radiotherapy services, marking a huge milestone in cancer treatment across Sub-Saharan Africa.
CyberKnife treatment is essentially an advancement in radiation therapy, offering precise and effective treatment options for a wide range of medical conditions, especially cancer. The technology helps minimize the side effects while improving a patient’s overall experience.
Previously, accessing CyberKnife treatment was costly for many patients from Kenya and the region, forcing them to go for costly services in India, Europe and the US. CyberKnife machine was not available in Africa until Egypt installed it recently.
Estimates show that about 10,000 people from Kenya travel abroad annually seeking medical treatment for various diseases especially cancer, a move that sees them spend over Kes2.25 billion ($15 million) in medical costs and expenses.
“KUTRRH finally managed to acquire the CyberKnife machine, which is a bold but best decision for Kenya in the effort to decrease outbound medical tourism and increase inbound medical tourism,” Prof Olive Mugenda, the hospital’s Board Chair, said.
Speaking after witnessing the first patient treatment, Prof Mugenda noted that the journey to acquiring CyberKnife started last year. It was part of the Level Six hospital’s vision to create a Centre of Excellence in oncology by providing end-to-end diagnosis and treatment for cancer.
Following the launch of the CyberKnife System, the first and only fully robotic radiotherapy device for cancer treatment last May, the first patient underwent treatment on September 28, in a trailblazing move signalling expanding access to advanced Cancer care in Kenya.
Through KUTRRH therefore, Kenya becomes the first country in sub-Sahara Africa to acquire equipment critical for CyberKnife treatment services. This makes it possible for patients in Kenya to obtain access to the extremely precise stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) and stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) treatments the system delivers.
According to KUTRRH, CyberKnife treatment services will be covered under national insurer NHIF as a part of Kenya’s offerings under Universal Healthcare Coverage.
For cancer diagnosis, KUTRRH acquired the much-needed Positron emission tomography–computed tomography (PET-CT) and Single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT-CT) services to complement existing linear particle accelerator (LINAC) and brachytherapy machines to ease the treatment of cancerous tumours.
The start of CyberKnife treatment services in Kenya comes after the completion and commissioning of the CyberKnife Centre by President William Ruto last May.
The commissioning was jointly undertaken by medical physicists from Accuray, the equipment manufacturer, and KUTRRH Medical Physicists, Doctors, Radiotherapists, and Oncologists.
“This process, which took five months after the launch by the President, included a dry run and the collection of very delicate data to ensure that the machine processes were accurate and ready to deliver precise and successful treatment to our patients. The commencement of the treatment also marks a key milestone for Kenya, the region and Africa in general. The services are now available without travelling outside Kenya for Kenyans or outside Africa for the regional patients,” explained Prof Mugenda.
Medical experts who made history
The medical experts, who were involved in the historic CyberKnife treatment included Abdil Jabbari, Application specialist and Medical physicist from Accurray USA. Ruth Wambui, a radiation therapist and the KUTRRH CyberKnife Centre Manager with many years of experience with CyberKnife operations in the UK and Peter Loreh, medical physicist and Radiotherapy Head of Department at KUTRRH.
Also in the team was Dr Tracy Irura, a Radiation Oncologist at KUTRRH and the lead oncologist in CyberKnife and Dr. Shridhar, a radiation oncologist at HCG INDIA who has delivered over 4000 CyberKnife treatments.
The patients set to undergo the CyberKnife system treatment regimen were carefully selected to ensure that they met the specified criteria by the experts.
CyberKnife uses a blend of advanced imaging and robotics to deliver precise and targeted radiation therapy. It can track the movement of tumours in real-time, adjusting the radiation beams accordingly. This precision is crucial in treating tumours near critical or delicate body areas.
Additionally, unlike traditional surgery, CyberKnife is non-invasive. It does not require incisions or anaesthesia, which leads to quicker recovery times and fewer complications for patients.
What’s more, the precise targeting of radiation with CyberKnife helps minimize damage to the surrounding healthy tissues. This reduced collateral damage leads to fewer side effects, enhancing the patient’s overall quality of life during and after treatment.
Further, under CyberKnife, the treatment is delivered in three to six outpatient sessions compared to traditional radiation therapy, which requires 20 to 30 sessions to complete treatment.
CyberKnife can treat tumours considered inoperable due to their location or the patient’s health. This provides new treatment options for patients who may not have had other viable choices.
Finally, the precision and accuracy of CyberKnife treatment can lead to better treatment outcomes, including higher rates of tumour control and increased survival rates for some cancers.
Conditions treated with a CyberKnife
CyberKnife treatment is recommended for various conditions, including cancerous and non-cancerous tumours. Its precise tumour treatment capacity to sub-millimetre accuracy levels makes treatment preferred using CyberKnife for the following conditions.
Who qualifies for CyberKnife treatment
The specific conditions and patients eligible for CyberKnife treatment may vary from case to case. Treatment decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, considering factors like the type and location of the tumour, the patient’s overall health, and the potential benefits of CyberKnife treatment. It is always advisable to consult oncologists for proper advice.
According to KUTRH, acquisition of the CyberKnife machine and the start of the treatment supports the government’s efforts for universal healthcare.
The referral hospital says it is engaging insurance companies to help meet the cost of treatment at between Kes300,000 and Kes350,000. These costs could be a small fraction of the current cost charged for similar treatment in Asia, Europe and America, especially those self-paying or using other insurance plans.