US doctors put ethnic spin to 1998 Nairobi Embassy bombing

By Gatonye Gathura

Meru survivors of the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi suffered highest depression rates compared to victims from other ethnicities, reveals American psychologists.

In the first study in Africa to assess the mental health relationship between ethnicity and disasters, the researchers suggest various tribes are affected differently by traumatic events.

This is the second scientific study in as many years to show a clear ethnic link to specific diseases. Last year data at the Kenya Cancer Registry linked particular cancers to specific ethnic groups.

A team led by Ann Korir of the Kenya Medical Research institute surprised Kenya with data linking the occurrence of particular cancers in Nairobi to the tribal origin of afflicted people.

In the new study published last Tuesday (19th September) US psychologists investigated survivors of the 1998 terrorist attack by ethnicity and now report Meru victims to have developed the highest rates of mental illnesses.

“Post-disaster major depression was more prevalent among members of the Meru group, compared with all others in the study,” says the study appearing in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

Doctors from the University of Texas, Duke University, University of Oklahoma and University of Alabama all in the US and St. Matthew’s University at Cayman Islands say this may open new approach on how disaster survivors are treated in future.

A report from the lead author Carol North, says 10 months after the attack they had collected mental health data from 392 survivors and segregated it by ethnic groupings.

An ethnic group, justified inclusion if it had at least five or more survivors of the disaster, with the Kikuyu, by dint of their nearness to Nairobi having the largest number, 140, of survivors in the study group.

The Luo at 63 had the second largest group then Kamba 61, Luhya 50, Kisii 15, Meru 11, Kalenjin 10 with others including foreigners comprising 42 individuals.

Justifying this ethnic approach, North says disaster research elsewhere has suggested that ethnicity may be associated with the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These differences she says may have important effects on disaster mental health responses and how to treat such cases or where to look for problems.

Sixty four per cent of the Meru survivors were found to suffer from PSTD the highest rates by far among all the other study groups. Prevalence among the other groups however was not scientifically significant.

“Members of the Meru group had the absolute highest percentage of bombing-related depression of all the groups,” says the study. The Kikuyu a closely related group to the Meru had the least disaster related depression prevalence at 28 per cent.

However the team says the data did not tell why the disaster related depression had affected ethnic groups differently.

“The study did not, however, shed further light on the reasons for differing post-disaster mental illness in these ethnic groups, especially given that they share a similar worldview, cultural practices and geography.”

North recommends further studies to understand the phenomenon with a view to having more tailor made approach to treating disaster victims for depression and other resultant mental illnesses.

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