As the world gears up for the World AIDS Day cerebrations on Dec. 1, Joyce Machua is doing the final touches on a poem she plans to recite during the annual fete.
The 18-year-old Kenyan youth is more than eager to tell the world how her journey with HIV since childhood has been – her main message being “It is not a death sentence after all.”
Having tested positive immediately after birth, Machua has had to be on antiretrovirals (ARVs) for as long as she can remember.
Her status has, however, been a top secret only known to her close family members and she hopes her bold move of sharing with the world what it takes to live with the HIV virus this year, will not change people’s perception about her.
“My mother succumbed to HIV-related infections when I was three years old, leaving me under the care of my grandmother, who has shielded my status in the 18 years of my life,” said Machua.
“Apart from taking the medicine daily, I live a fulfilled life like any other girl my age. The reason why I want to make my status public is to encourage other young people my age to get tested and take the right measures if found positive,” she added.
Her grandmother Jane Wangui, now in her early sixties, was at first opposed to Machua’s move to make her status public, but being a nurse and having witnessed the rising number of new infections among the Kenyan youth, she changed her mind and gave her grandchild her blessings.
According to the National AIDS Control Council (NACC), approximately 66 Kenyans between the ages of 18 to 24 years get infected with HIV daily, something Wangui expressed concern over.
“It saddens me every time I come across these new cases in my line of duty. I cry for this young generation who have no idea what it takes to live with HIV. Much as the country has made progress in preventing and treating HIV, it is still not a walk in the park, we still have a lot to do to save our youth,” Wangui told Xinhua.
According to Joab Khasewa, the Program Officer in Charge of HIV prevention at NACC, much as the country has made progress in preventing new HIV cases, there is still a lot that needs to be done especially among adolescents and young adults.
“Generally we have done well in terms of prevention, but the progress, especially among young Kenyans aged between 18 and 24, is insignificant,” said Khasewa.
For 2016, the number of new HIV infections among adults aged 15 and over was about 56,000, down from 71,000 in 2015, while adolescents and young adults account for half of these infections, according to reports from UNAIDS and Kenya’s ministry of health.
Khasewa said that out of the 1.5 million Kenyans living with HIV, close to 1 million have been put on ARVs significantly bringing down the number of HIV-related deaths.
Although it is over 30 years since the first case of HIV was documented in Kenya, stigma is still high as most Kenyans still equate testing positive to a death sentence.
As for Dennis Oluoch, it took over a year to come to terms with the dreaded HIV diagnosis.
Oluoch recalled how his wife deserted him after his health started deteriorating and having been in denial, he refused to enroll for ARVs.
“In my village in Western Kenya, HIV was associated with witchcraft a few years back and this belief was so strong, even learned people like me partly got carried away. For a moment I thought I had been bewitched so I never saw the need for enrolling for ARVs. My CD4 count got so low at some point, I can’t believe I’m still alive,” Oliech told Xinhua.
His wife, who has since reunited with him, also tested positive later, but their two children were certified free of the virus.
The 42-year-old, who now works at a Voluntary Testing and Counseling Centre in western Kenya, says his greatest challenge has been convincing some of his clients that there is life beyond testing positive for HIV.
In June, Kenya became the first African country to start using a generic version of the latest AIDS drug that can improve and prolong the lives of tens of thousands of people who suffer severe side effects and resistance to other treatment regimen.
A generic version of Dolutegravir (DTG), first approved in the United States in 2013, has so far been given to 27,000 patients in Kenya.
DTG is the drug of choice for people with HIV in high-income countries who have never taken antiretroviral therapy before and for those who have developed resistance to other treatment options. Enditem