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Dilemma of HIV infections among the youth in Kenya

Kemboi Kimutai
Disclosure ambassador Kemboi Kimutai during an interview at the Nation Centre on Monday. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL 
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He was only 23 when he found out he was HIV positive. That was in 2015, when Kemboi Kimutai’s world almost came crashing before his eyes.

So like many people who find themselves in such a situation, he went into denial for a whole year, all this time trying to figure out where he might have contracted the virus.

“All possibilities turned to my former employer and after doing a follow up, I came to learn that she had died on suspicious grounds. According to sources, she got seriously sick and refused to seek medical attention claiming to be suffering from a condition that no one would help and later succumbed,” he says.

Coming from a humble background, Kemboi says he was not assured of an education. “When I was in high school, my family was struggling to make ends meet, and raising school fees was always going to be a nightmare,” he explains.

He managed to be in and out of school, while school fees balance continued to nag.

“My dream was shattered when I was forced to discontinue my studies. However, my heart couldn't let the quest for knowledge go, thus I had to find avenues to keep that dream alive.”

So his quest brought him to Nairobi and being the first time in the city, and with no money, any opportunity that came his way would be welcome.

Fortunately, he was able to secure a job as a gardener, and even got a place to stay at his boss’s servant's quarters.

“After few days, I was given a room in the main house, which I thought was an appreciation for my diligence and hard work. As days went on, my relationship with my employer grew closer and closer to an extent we could dine together.”

One thing led to another, he says, and as days passed by, he was moving closer and closer to the trap. “One day she promised to take me back to school of my choice if only I could sleep with her. Out of desperation and confusion, I ended up having sex with her; and without protection,” he says.

Later on, he adds, his employer got fired from her work and he was forced to leave since she couldn’t afford to pay his salary anymore.

At the time of his infection, Kemboi was barely 24 thus he represents an increasing number of youth who contract the virus before the age of 25.

According to the 2016 Kenya Aids Response report by the Ministry of Health/National Aids Council, more than half (51 percent) of all new HIV infections in Kenya in 2015 occurred among adolescents and young people (aged 15-24 years), a rapid rise from 29 percent in 2013.

Last year, the National Aids Control Council raised concerns over the increasing number of young people and children in Kenya who are HIV positive.

Mr Nelson Otwoma, the executive director of the National Empowerment Network of People Living with HIV and Aids in Kenya (Nephak), says early sexual activity also increases the period young people are exposed to the risk of sexually transmitted infections including HIV.

“Young people have low risk perception among themselves. A good number of them change their sex partner very rapidly. Since they are not married, they don’t feel compelled to be faithful. One risk for young people is having concurrent multiple partners. It means that they are exposing themselves more,” he says.

On the other hand, he says, older people and especially men also think that adolescents and young people are not yet exposed to HIV. Apart from that, he says, young people who engage in sex with their peer’s don’t use any protection.

Older people who engage in sex with young girls, he adds, also rarely use any form of protection. “The perception is that condoms are for older mature women, mostly sex workers,” he says.

NO PROTECTION

Otwoma says young people who engage them in sex only care about pregnancy and many girls especially in towns know their safe days. “If they are safe, there is no protection,” he adds.

Other than that, the Nephak executive director reckons that young people lack knowledge of how HIV is transmitted. “They think that you can actually see a person who has HIV and people who look healthy are HIV free.”

This he says has to do with low sexual and reproductive health and rights SRHR knowledge among the youth. “These young people need access information on HIV prevention through sexuality education, which should start earlier in schools,” says Otwoma.

Mr Joshua Gitonga, the head of Monitoring and Evaluation at the National Aids Control Council NACC, says this has to do with the rapid erosion of morals among the affected age group.

Apart from that, Gitonga also says parents should be involved in their children’s lives more, thus be able to monitor most of their activities.

“But even as this all this continues to be blamed on declining moral standards among Kenya’s young people, as well as poor parenting, there is an economic aspect of it,” Gitonga adds.

This, he says, is especially prevalent among young women who are involved in transactional relationships with older men.

“Economic empowerment is a large part of it because being unstable makes the youth vulnerable,” says Jacque Wambui, former NEPHAK Advocacy and Communications officer and consultant working on Pediatric Treatment for HIV SRHR issues related to the ECHO Trial.

September 2018 statistical update by the United Nations Development Programme placed Kenya's youth unemployment rate at 26.2 percent in 2017, a worrying hurdle in the fight against the scourge.

For Kemboi, fortunately, he found someone who offered to educate him, thus he completed his high school education and currently is in his final year at the university studying Computer Science.

Despite having fallen a victim of circumstances and now well informed on matters HIV, he is using his story to create awareness on positive living.

But even as he moves on with his life, Otwoma says young people who already know their HIV status and are currently on medication, have a long way to go if they are to live long with their condition. “Most are not adhering well to their treatment. This means their chance of transmitting HIV during sex is very high. Even adult men who engage in sex with young people have been infected in this way,” says Otwoma.

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