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A Pioneering Physician in Africa, 20 Years Later

When Dr. Joel Lavine first met Dr. Rose Kamenwa, she had just appeared in his office without an appointment. She was attending a medical conference at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). At that time, Dr. Lavine was UCSD’s Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Professor of Pediatrics.

Dr. Kamenwa was brash but sincere. She spoke about the pediatric deaths in her country and the suffering caused by famine. The leading causes of childhood death then, were parasitic infections, acute and chronic diarrhea, and liver disorders. Having graduated from the University of Nairobi (1983, 1991) and National Children’s Hospital, Tokyo (1995), she was the first and only physician in East Africa who was pursuing an opportunity to train in pediatric gastroenterology. She wanted to gain expertise so that she could save more lives and teach others in her country how to do the same. Dr. Lavine saw the fire in her belly and arranged for her to spend a year (2000-2001) away from her family, studying with attending physicians at UCSD and Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. The story of her ambitions and struggles became a major story in the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper.

Dr. Kamenwa returned to Kenya, to Kenyatta International Hospital, with a wealth of new knowledge obtained from her intense studies under Dr. Joel Lavine and a determination to do better for her patients. She began sending other physicians, including Dr. Ahmed Laving, to train at UCSD. She established Pediatric Gastroenterology Services in Kenya. She helped found the Kenyatta National Hospital Lactation Management Training Program. She became a distinguished lecturer at the Department of Paediatrics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Nairobi.

Today, the landscape of Pediatric Gastroenterology services in Kenya is quite different. Where no services existed just two decades ago, there is now a dedicated clinic, Nairobi Pediatric Gastroenterology Centre. The Head Physician at Shoe4Africa Children’s Hospital in Eldoret, Kenya, is a Pediatric Gastroenterologist. The Tech School of Medicine in Kenya boasts a postgraduate degree program in Pediatric Gastroenterology.

As for Dr. Rose Kamenwa, her legacy continues to flourish. She has authored over 20 scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals. She has supervised numerous theses and dissertations. She holds a long list of accolades and professional associations. Her name appears as a co-author and a reference on uncountable CVs belonging to accomplished and decorated young Pediatric Gastroenterologists.

Today, Dr. Kamenwa is a full-time Assistant Professor of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Lactation Management Consultant at the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health, Aga Khan University Medical College, East Africa. She continues to fight malnutrition and digestive diseases in Kenya, where diarrhea is still one of the leading causes of childhood mortality. She continues to contribute to a high standard of training for future generations of African physicians.

According to UNICEF, in Kenya, the under-five-year mortality rate in Kenya has decreased from 102 per 1,000 in 1990 to 43 per 1,000 in 2019. This is due, in part, to innovating and self-sacrificing physicians and teachers like Dr. Kamenwa. May that number continue to fall, and her legacy live on.