Rising HIV infections cause stir in Kenya

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Kenyan health authorities expressed concern on Tuesday over the growing rate of fresh HIV/AIDS infections, which increased by over 11% in the past year alone, suggesting the infected population are increasingly spreading the disease.

Kenya’s Assistant Minister for Public Health and Sanitation James Gesami said although new infections were driven by the high number of people living with the disease, most of them did not know that they were living with the disease.

“The number of new infections has been rising by 11% but people living with HIV/AIDS are living longer lives,” Gesami said, after the health ministry launched a joint campaign to promote voluntary testing and counseling to reduce the rate of infections.

The combined initiative, which is offering locals with “ground-breaking” scientific tools to combat Africa’s leading sources of death– malaria, HIV/AIDS and diarrhea, was launched Monday, encouraging locals to test for HIV in advance.

Swiss medical technologies firm, Vestergaad Frandsen, which has been supplying insecticide treated nets for free to millions of Africans in an effort to stem the rising tide against malaria, is targeting increased HIV testing to reduce the rate of new infections.

In its newly launched initiative, to be tested in the western Kenya region of Lurambi, Vestergaad is offering a free set of ‘life enhancing tools,’ which include a water purifier, called LifeStraw, a condom and a free bed net to encourage more people to test for HIV.

James Okwiri, 38, a resident of Lurambi, about 450 km west of Nairobi, is among a group of local residents who have signed up to join a community counseling and testing initiative that is targeting about 80% expansion in the number of those getting tested.

Okwiri said his lifestyle gave him away in the prime of his youth as he was misled by campaign slogans and information that people living with HIV/AIDS often look unhealthy and are worn out, body wise, which ended in him choosing the wrong partner.

“I knew about HIV/AIDS, I had read about it in the media, but I did not know that even those women who looked healthy were also living with the disease, so it was very difficult for me to accept that I was HIV/AIDS positive,” Okwiri said.

The campaign, also spearheaded by United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill ambassador Yvonne Chaka Chaka, is attempting to establish if an array of motivators, like the possibility of preventing other diseases, would entice testing.

“We are launching a historical intervention. Many times diseases have been eradicated but these were single diseases. In this campaign, we are targeting three leading sources of death,” said Dr Eric Lugada, Country Director, CHF International, a relief body.

He said the high number of patients who did not know their status posed a greater risk as they infected others indiscriminately.

“We need to stem the tide of this epidemic. We want to provide safe water systems which will prevent the spread of these diseases,” he added.

In the campaign, the three international relief organisations are testing to see if initiatives such as offering locals with tools to help give access to safe water (thereby reducing diarrhea), mosquito nets and condoms would encourage communities to embrace testing.

The new approach to tackling these three diseases has been designated as an Integrated Prevention Demonstration (IPD), which will allow medical personnel to offer treatment of the HIV/AIDS infected people on site while also offering malaria prevention tools.

Vestergaard Frandsen Chief Executive Mikkel Vestergaard said the campaign was trying to reach out to 80% of the Kenyan population who have never been tested for HIV/AIDS.

“We are putting millions of dollars in this country because I have witnessed first-hand how diarrhea, malaria and HIV ravage this country,” he said.

Kenya’s Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi said it was advisable for all Kenyans to know their HIV status.

He took an HIV/AIDS test as part of efforts to create awareness.

Health file  The lack of education and political will, poverty, out-moded traditional beliefs, to mention but a few, have been widely blamed for causing severe and sometimes unwarranted health catastrophies of genocidal proportions on the African continent. Child killer diseases, malaria, tuberculosis, water borne diseases, HIV/AIDS, among other preventable ailments have killed millions in their wake. As rightly said by the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, on May 13, 2000 "More people (...) died of Aids in the past year (1999-2000, ndlr) in Africa than in all the wars on the continent".
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