Sally Agallo was at the peak of her career two decades ago when the loss of two babies and a series of opportunistic infections compelled her to undergo a HIV test.
The 50-year-old grassroots campaigner suffered depression upon discovering that she had the AIDS virus while separation with her husband and loss of a well-paying job became addition to her litany of woes.
Agallo has battled severe infections ranging from tuberculosis, herpes and pneumonia due to low immunity and during a routine check-up five years ago, the outspoken health advocate was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
“The twin challenge of living with the AIDS virus and cervical cancer can be overwhelming but I am slowly learning how to handle it through palliative care and emotional support from family and friends,” said Agallo.
She spoke at the just concluded national HIV and AIDS forum in Nairobi where senior policymakers, researchers and campaigners decried the rising toll of non-communicable diseases like cancers, diabetes and high blood pressure on HIV positive Kenyans.
Agallo is among an estimated 1.5 million Kenyans living with AIDS but are now grappling with an onslaught of lifestyle diseases despite improved defenses occasioned by adherence to anti-retroviral therapy.
“It was a shocker to discover that I had stage three cervical cancer shortly after doctors told me that my viral load was negligible thanks to antiretroviral drugs and proper diet,” said Agallo.
She revealed that her savings have been depleted because of costly treatment of cervical cancer and she is often forced to rely on close relatives and other well-wishers for a bailout.
“A single chemotherapy cost a fortune not counting other incidentals like transport and medicine to suppress pain. In short, escaping from financial stress has been a mirage due to exorbitant cost of treating two dreaded terminal illnesses,” said Agallo.
Kenya’s ambitious goal of eliminating HIV and AIDS by 2030 could become a pipedream as non-communicable diseases take a heavier toll on people living with the virus.
Sicily Kariuki, cabinet secretary for health, acknowledged that the milestone attained in AIDS prevention, treatment and management is being rolled back by non-communicable diseases like cancers and diabetes.
“It is clear that HIV positive individuals have suffered disproportionately from a host of non-communicable diseases hence the need to realign our policy and funding interventions to this emerging challenge,” said Kariuki.
She said the government will leverage on research, capacity development for health workers and public education to strengthen management of lifestyle diseases among people living with AIDS.
The cabinet secretary said that universal health insurance will ensure that Kenyans living with AIDS who have contracted non-communicable diseases are able to access quality treatment and care.
Nelson Otwoma, a HIV positive middle aged campaigner said that policymakers should come up with innovative strategies to boost response to the challenge of cancer and diabetes affecting Kenyans infected with the AIDS virus.
“It is apparent that even HIV positive individuals who have achieved viral suppression are at higher risk of cancer compared to their counterparts with negative status,” said Otwoma.
“We therefore appeal to policymakers and donors to come up with non-communicable diseases’ interventions that are tailor made for people living with AIDS,” he added.
Otwoma who also doubles up as the national coordinator for Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya, said the state health insurer should develop a package for this group that is vulnerable to non-communicable diseases.
“The government should subsidize treatment of terminal illness like HIV/AIDS, diabetes and all forms of cancer to avert unnecessary loss of lives,” said Otwoma.
He said that investments in modern diagnostic equipment, public education and palliative care are key to boost management of non-communicable diseases affecting people living with AIDS.
James Kamau, coordinator of Kenya Treatment Access Movement who has lived with HIV and AIDS for close to three decades said that policy reform combined with robust advocacy is key to reduce the burden of cancer and diabetes among HIV positive individuals.
“We require a progressive set of policies and advocacy that targets grassroots communities to ensure non-communicable diseases are embedded in national HIV response strategies,” said Kamau.
Government statistics indicate that non-communicable diseases account for about 50 percent of hospital admissions in Kenya.
Andrew Mulwa, a practicing doctor said that cancers, diabetes and kidney stones are likely to overtake infectious diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia to become leading killers of people living with AIDS. Enditem