7 Most Devastating Epidemics in Kenya’s History

Written by | Listicles

Although some of these diseases have been wiped out now, their effects are still clear in the structures of our society and economy.

  1. Bubonic Plague

The first known outbreak of the plague started along the original Biashara Street in the early 1900s. The colonial administrators burnt down the entire street, and with it the rats that carried the plague. After that, the plague periodically appeared across many Kenyan towns as their populations increased.

The worst outbreak killed 529 people in less than a year in 1942 across the three major towns in Nairobi at the time and their sprawling townships. The Nairobi and Kisumu outbreaks were bubonic while the Mombasa one was pneumonic. Of the 1, 195 cases reported in Nairobi alone, there were 289 deaths.

It was fear of the plague that stimulated the first official town planning efforts for Nairobi, although most of the efforts were to segregate Indians whose sprawling townships were thought to be breeding grounds for carrier rats. In 1900, the colonial government passed the East Africa Plague Ordinance.

It was replaced six years later by the more specific Plague and Cholera Ordinance (1906). The plagues in Kisumu were exceptionally frequent, and account for the segregation zoning laws that followed. Those laws bore the current social and economic divisions in Kisumu and Nairobi today.

6. Cholera

Cholera, just like the bubonic plague, was one of the earliest results of the establishment of towns in colonial Kenya. It tends to hit low-economic zones such as slums, and Africans in urban centers lived in squalid conditions in places devoid of municipal services. Unlike the plague though, cholera is still very much around today.

Since 1971, cholera epidemics seem to erupt somewhere in Kenya almost annually. Outbreaks before 1989 had a fatality rate of about 3.57 percent, but by 2007, the rate had risen to about 5.6 percent. The worst of them all started in 1997 in Nyanza Province and within the next two years, spread across the entire Western Kenya region. In 2009, a severe cholera outbreak hit Kodiaga prison, killing over 30 people in less than a week. 274 people died that year out of 11, 769 reported cases countrywide.

Cholera outbreaks forced subsequent governments to build working sanitation systems and laws. Implementation and management are still key issues to disease management today. With even larger slums with pressing sanitation deficiencies, the fight to beat cholera is still as real as it was in 1905.

5. Rinderpest

Rinderpest is an aggressive cattle disease that took Kenya more than a century to beat.

In 1887, Indian cattle being herded for the Italian army at Massawa in Ethiopia showed early signs of rinderpest infection. Before long, the virulent disease had decimated most of the cattle herds in Ethiopia. It then spread, fast and aggressively, across East Africa. In the early months of 1892, rinderpest spread across the massive herds owned by the Maasai.

Cattle is the primary economic activity of the Maasai, and the epidemic set them on the precarious path to famine. Famine usually triggers lower immunity, leading to a susceptible population that would now not only be dying of hunger but other diseases such as smallpox and cholera.

Of the suffering the Maasai endured, a colonial writer wrote “Never before in the memory of man, or by the voice of tradition, have the cattle died in such numbers; never before has the wild game suffered.”

The Maasai, the fiercest tribe in the entire East Africa, was nearly wiped out in less than a decade due to the combination of misfortunes that begun with a rinderpest pandemic. Their hitherto regional power was soon forgotten and other communities quickly moved into land that had previously been part of the pastoralist community’s dominions.

Shrewd colonial administrators wrapped up the story, playing the weak factions against each other, finally undoing what a century of badass lion-hunting and war-mongering had built. It would take more than a century for global effort to finally eradicate the disease, with the last positive samples being taken in 2001 around the Kenya-Somalia border.

One of the most ambitious programs occurred in the 1980s across Kenya and Tanzania, with a total of 26 million vaccines deployed.

4. Malaria

By the time the colonial government was setting up, malaria epidemics were somewhat common in Mombasa and the areas around Lake Victoria. Nairobi only had a mild malaria threat, and even then, at some parts of the year. Like most epidemics of the early 20th century, government response was largely directed at segregation. Although local populations seemed to have evolved some mild form of resistance unlike Indian and European migrants, the responses were mostly directed at African and Asians. The Nairobi Township (Suppression of Mosquitoes) Rules, 1911, for example, mandated the sanitary inspector to assess African and Indian households. It was part of what pundits dubbed the ‘sanitation syndrome.’ It was an infamous tropical disease that was plagued early colonialists and killed an unknown number.

Multiple interventions in the years between and during the world wars curbed the spread of Malaria. DDT, for example, failed to work effectively in Mombasa but worked brilliantly in Kisumu. After independence, the new government faced a resurging epidemic. With less financial backing and drug resistance to boot, government support balked and the epidemic spread again, particularly after the 1980s. It is still one of the foremost epidemics the modern Kenya state is still fighting.

3. Influenza

For the early years of colonial domination, the key health problems seemed to affect the townships. Rural areas, which provided labor forces for the new settler farms, were largely unaffected. This changed after the second world war as demobilized soldiers and Carrier Corps made their way inland with a strain of influenza hitherto unknown in East Africa. In September 1918, a ship from Bombay docked at the port of Mombasa. In it were demobilized Indian troops suffering from the Spanish influenza. Mombasa was then teeming with demobilized Kenyans who had served as Carrier Corps. They got infected and as they made their way home, particularly along the railway line, the disease spread.

The pandemic was further aided by a biting famine that forced people from their homes in search of food. Rural areas became graveyards as people, estimated at over 155, 000, died within just that six months. By the third wave in 1919, more than 5.5 percent of the Kenyan population had been wiped out. Across Africa, the disease wiped out 2 percent of the population in less than a year. It killed five times more people than the war itself. One of the major effects of the epidemic was that it forced colonial authorities to take African health issues seriously. Temporary dispensaries were established, and some eventually evolved into permanent health centers. Missionaries established medical care systems within reserves, finding. Their government subsidies were increased, and suddenly, rural health became a key issue.


Kenya identified its first HIV/AIDs patient in 1984. The disease had been around though, especially among the prostitute population in Nairobi and Mombasa, from as early as 1981.

The first official report to the World Health Organisation was made in 1986 and cited only 10 patients, it was followed by 109 the next year, and the number only went up. In 1987, Joe Muriuki came out publicly about his HIV status, exposing himself to the stigma and silence around the disease with no known cure.

The silence allowed the disease to thrive, particularly in the Western parts of the country. 17 percent of Western Province was HIV positive in 1994, and the number just kept going up, with most patients dying within a year. By 1997 when HIV was finally declared a national disaster, when the population in the country was just a little below 29 million, 1 million people were positive.

It was a little too late, and over the next five years, the number rose to 2.5 million people. It took more than 20 years to finally get anything of a hold on it, by which time millions were dead or dying. The number has since dropped to about 1.6 million, with government institutions and programs leading the fight against the disease.

The effects of AIDS, particularly to the economy of places such as Western and Nyanza province, are extreme. Many homesteads died out, or only left young children who were either themselves too sick or too young to fend for themselves.

AIDS became one an unwanted disruptive force, reorganizing all aspects of Kenyan society quickly and with villainous might. It forced the elderly to take over the role of parenting orphaned grand children, and dealt a dent into age-old practices such as wife inheritance.

  1. Smallpox

One of the reasons why the colonialists quickly subdued Kenyan communities was due to the smallpox epidemics of the late nineteenth century. Smallpox epidemics occurred immediately after famines, finishing off the humans who had barely survived months, sometimes years, of suffering.

During the exceptionally bad famine of 1882-1884, a vicious smallpox epidemic broke out at Sagalla and quickly spread across the country.

One colonial writer, Wray, noted that “There was scarcely a house where there was not one sick, dying or dead. They died in their houses, on the road side, in their gardens, and there they were left unburied, no one having the strength to dig a grave, and the bodies were too numerous for the hyenas to dispose of.”

Another devastating smallpox epidemic occurred in 1898, again during a famine. It is estimated that the combination led to the deaths of upto half of the population at the time. The high population density in the fertile reach Central highlands provided the perfect grounds for the epidemic, decimating entire bloodlines and forcing survivors to run for the hills, literally, in areas such as Fort Hall.

It also hit Nyanza Province in 1899, 1909 and 1915. ?Other notable epidemics occurred after the world wars, in the 1930s, and in the 1950s. The average fatality rate was 1-2 percent. The exact number of people lost to smallpox before it was eradicated in the 1970s runs into millions. It is estimated that a total of 300 million people worldwide died from smallpox, more than any other virus known to man.

One of the greatest effects of the 1882-84 epidemic was that it nearly wiped out the Rendille tribe. Although population estimates pre-Smallpox are unavailable, pundits theorize that the Rendille might have been among the most populous tribes in what is now Kenya. The epidemic hit them hard, nearly exterminating the entire population of the tribe in less than two years.

Owaahh, 2015.

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Last modified: February 21, 2020