Kenya on Saturday joined the rest of the world in marking World Aids Day at Afraha Stadium in Nakuru where the global campaign, “Getting to zero: Zero new HIV infections”, was unveiled.
Ignorance, misconception and a general lack of information about HIV and Aids has been blamed for the rise in infections more than 30 years since the disease was identified.
Data provided by the Public Health ministry shows that only 40 percent of Kenyans know their HIV status. In 2011, it is estimated that 1.6 million to 2 million new infections occurred in sub-Saharan Africa and that one in four new infections occurs in young people from 13 to 24.
A group of young Kenyans have come out to tell their experiences and bust the myths as well as combat stigma.
Recently they visited a secondary school in Nairobi to counsel students about the dangers of HIV and Aids.
At the start of the session, the men and women – operating under the aegis of Straight Plus youth group – told the audience that some of them were HIV positive. When they finally made the revelation, the students were dumbfounded.
Impossible to tell
Madonah Syombua, the co-founder of Straight Talk – Straight Plus’ mother organisation – says the idea was to show the students that it is impossible to tell the HIV status of a person by simply looking at them.
“Nowadays with the quality of treatment we have around, it is possible to remain as healthy as anybody,” she said.
It was evident from the deliberations with the students that HIV positive people are considered promiscuous sexually reckless.
Baffled by the misconception among the youth, the group’s members, most of whom have lived with the virus for over two decades having contracted it at birth, have decided to use their experiences to reach out to young people in Kenya.
Justin Maina, 24, learnt of his status in September 2010 after he fell sick. His mother had died when he was a boy, and he heard the doctors recommending that “it’s important all her children are tested”. But he was too young to understand what was going on.
In 2010 he was diagnosed with typhoid and given a prescription. But lady luck was on his side. The pharmacist told him he did not have all the drugs.
This forced him to skip a few days of work, but he did not recover. “I returned to the hospital and had to take an x-ray which revealed I had contracted TB,” he says.
By then, Maina was a teacher, and because his CD4 count stood at 231, he had been weakened and could no longer attend classes. When the students and teachers learnt of his status, he threw in the towel because their attitude towards him made him uncomfortable.
But after attending several seminars and support groups, Maina can now stand and talk to other young people.
Although Maina is not sexually active, he says people still accuse him of being promiscuous becuse of his status.
Joe Kamwo, 22, says it all started in 2004 after his mother died when he was in Class Seven. A few days later, he was diagnosed with TB. At the hospital, he was told he would be given other drugs in addition to those for TB.
“I wasn’t told anything else, but my grandmother and aunt cried a lot at the hospital. I sensed something was amiss,” he recalled.
Kamwo spent most of the time he should have been in school revising for the approaching KCPE exams at home.
Nevertheless, he joined Form One but was often forced to stay at home to nurse some opportunistic diseases.
Eventually, he decided to discontinue secondary education and pursue a career in ICT. But Kamwo, who was born with the virus, says many young people are yet to appreciate the dangers of HIV and Aids. He says this is what has moved him to come out and use his experience to spread the message of zero new infections.
“Last year I was in a group of young men who were saying they would rather sleep with a HIV-positive lady who is hot (beautiful) than an ugly lady who is HIV negative,” he says.
Kamwo has since started anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment and has an HIV-negative girlfriend. “We both went to a VCT centre, and she knows I am positive and she is negative,” he said.
Mary Snaih, 20, says she learnt of her status in 2010 when she was in Form Two. Her mother took her to hospital where she was diagnosed with the virus.
She returned to school after counselling on how to live positively.
A year later, she returned to the hospital and was put on septrine treatment to boost her CD4 count which had gone down. She was then put on ARVs after the CD4 count increased.
Like Kamwo, Snaih has a boyfriend; both were tested. “He knows my status, and I know his,” she said.
On a random afternoon, Lillian Khabayi, 25, decided to visit a VCT to get tested–just for the fun of it. The results were positive, but she chose to ignore them.
But in 2007 she had a strange skin disease, and her employer decided to send her to hospital. The doctors informed her employer of her status but not her.
When she later fell ill she moved in with her sister who initially scorned her. Her sister later informed her family who, luckily, were supportive of her. “They now remind me to swallow the medicines,” she says.
But Khabayi says she has experienced stigma from her uncle and cousins who spread word that she was HIV positive and had to move.
In 2010, she gave birth to a HIV negative boy after meeting a HIV-positive man. While maintaining that the virus is no longer the death sentence it was, she wants those uninfected to take caution and ensure zero infections.