In the 80s, Ugandan music sensation Philly Lutaaya’s movie was shown in many Kenyan schools and villages. Mobile cinema vans showed the musician’s final days, bony and ridden with sores. That was the picture of HIV/Aids then.
Since the first case was reported in Kenya in 1984, many communities have struggled to break the silence on HIV/Aids.
The Aids pandemic has been a journey from horror to hope. Over a million deaths have been recorded. Thirty one years late HIV/Aids diagnosis, which was an equivalent of a death sentence, has a new face of hope and long healthy living. About 1.6 million Kenyans are living with HIV and approximately 800,000 are on life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs.
But as governments worked relentlessly to curb new infections and deaths over the years, they ignored one group. Infected children who are now in their teenage years. The government, medical experts, donors and other agencies set their sights on adults, who form a majority of those affected.
The tables have now turned and the young population faces the greatest risk. The number of adolescent deaths from Aids globally tripled over the last 15 years as infected adults lived longer, notes a United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) report released on Friday.
Most adolescents who die of Aids-related illnesses acquired HIV when they were infants, 10 to 15 years ago, when fewer pregnant women and mothers living with HIV received antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to prevent transmission from mother to child. “When you see young people dying in their teenage years, most likely they were infected when they were 13-years-old or younger.
‘‘But most of these young people were born with it,” said Nelson Otwoma, the executive director of the Network of People living with HIV/Aids in Kenya (Nephak).
These children have survived into their teenage years, sometimes without knowing their HIV status.
But more worrying is 26 new infections being recorded among adolescents every hour. In Kenya, the new infections are attributed to early sexual encounters, where 20 per cent of youth between 15 and 24 had their first sexual experience before their 15th birthday.
“Girls are vastly more affected, accounting for seven in 10 new infections among 15 to 19 year olds,” Unicef notes.
To turn the tide, the government has launched campaigns targeting adolescents, youths and HIV transmission to infants. By 2014, three in five pregnant women living with HIV received anti-retroviral treatment to prevent transmission of the virus to their babies.
This has translated into a 60 per cent reduction in Aids-related deaths among children under four years of age since 2000.
“These efforts to eliminate mother-to-child transmissions will help to change the course of the epidemic for the next generation of adolescents,” notes Unicef.
The government is now collecting data in schools to get the exact number of adolescents infected with HIV/Aids, to effectively deal with the epidemic.
The programme is already facing challenges because HIV/Aids is still seen as a sexually transmitted disease.
“The challenge with dealing with HIV/Aids among children and teenagers is that you cannot go to schools and talk to them about it because most schools in Kenya are owned by churches. You cannot talk about condoms and other topics that touch on sex because it is still regarded a taboo in our culture,” said Mr Otwoma.
Kenya has made important progress but much more needs to be done to support adolescents in protecting themselves from HIV, said Ulrike Gilbert–Nandra, the chief of the HIV/Aids Programme, at Unicef Kenya.
“The more than 250,000 young people who have already HIV need better support to access quality health services, enjoy a good education and that they and their families can accept one’s HIV status and enjoy support, love and protection,” she said.
The government increased the HIV/Aids budget to Sh2.6 billion, funds that will be used to add 130,000 children into anti-retroviral therapies. As the world marks Aids day today, Mr Otwoma says, everybody needs to take a role in the fight.
“It needs to start with parents. Let teachers be the champions of fighting stigma in schools. Let the curriculum be reviewed too.”