9:00am Monday 31st October 2011
By GAVIN AITCHISON
GAVIN AITCHISON travelled to Kenya in September 2011 to look at the HIV crisis in the country and to meet the people and projects working to combat the virus. In a series of in-depth accounts for The Press, he told of the harrowing impact of the virus, and the determined fight back against the devastation it has brought. Here, in the first of those pieces, he looks at the reasons behind the epidemic and the scale of the challenge facing healthworkers and campaigners.
THREE decades ago, three letters sent shockwaves through the western world.
The discovery in 1981 of HIV marked a medical breakthrough – and the beginning of a revolution.
Across Europe and North America, awareness programmes were launched and relentlessly pursued.
Education was stepped up in schools and colleges; posters were plastered throughout towns and cities. “Don’t die of ignorance” was the message, and, to all intents and purposes, it worked.
Public understanding of HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) rose; it became widely understood and accepted. And then, in due course, it slipped from the public spotlight.
Now, 30 years on, campaigners are turning up the heat once again. Not because of the threat here – but because of the virus’s continuing rampage in the developing world.
This year, Christian Aid’s entire Christmas appeal is focussed on HIV. They, and the organisations they work with, want to raise awareness of the widespread suffering the virus causes, particularly in East Africa where infection rates are high and public knowledge all too low.
They are campaigning for places such as Kenya, where devoted organisations are doing what they can but where a combination of culture, stigma, ignorance and poverty conspire against huge swathes of the population.
HIV first struck here in 1984, terrifying a population that had not been told the truth. At the funeral, the body was wrapped in a black bag and hidden from view, and mourners ran away to wash their hands immediately afterwards.
Awareness has improved since, but the country is still in the throes of the virus.
HIV itself is not always the killer. But it disarms the body’s immune system, making it vulnerable to other prevalent illnesses and diseases. HIV clears the path, and when malaria or tuberculosis strike, the body is too weak to fight back.
Campaigners, therefore, are fighting on numerous fronts, trying to raise awareness of malaria, equip people with mosquito nets, and combat HIV.
It’s a big task. Around seven per cent of Kenyans – one in 14 – suffer from HIV. Among women aged 30 to 34, the figure is 13.3 per cent.
More than three quarters of people in a relationship have no idea whether or not their partner is infected. And it is believed that a staggering 84 per cent of those who do have HIV, don’t realise it.
In Nyanza province in the west, the crisis is at its greatest. Here, on the shores of Lake Victoria, cross-border infections from Uganda exacerbate the problem, leaving 15 per cent of people – more than one in seven – infected.
A few years ago the figure was higher still, so much so that, in 2002, the Government declared the HIV epidemic a national disaster.
The infection’s spread is fuelled by local culture. Bigamy and polygamy are common, meaning one man can pass the infection to several women and, in many cases, to unborn children. Almost half of new infections (44 per cent) come from within the marriage.
When a husband dies, the pattern then repeats itself, due to the age-old custom of “wife inheritance”, a tradition that plays into the virus’s hands.
The intention is noble enough – a desire to ensure that a familiar man, such as a brother-in-law, takes care of a widow in need. But often, it merely serves to further the spread of HIV.
Shame, stigma and persecution also kick in. Many victims are abandoned or persecuted by their families. Some view the virus as a curse from God, divine retribution for an unknown wrong.
Many husbands leave their wives, and countless sufferers refuse to find out or accept their status, let alone seek treatment.
Even those that do accept it, face complications, often living miles from medical provision and struggling to get the anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) their bodies desperately need.
Infant mortality rates are high, and although medical advances have made it possible for an HIV positive couple to have a healthy baby, not everyone knows that or has access to the advice.
Therein lies the tragedy of HIV in Africa. Success stories have shown beyond doubt that it is possible to live positively with HIV, and to enjoy a long and fulfilling life.
But hundreds of thousands don’t know how, denied by ignorance. That, to the charities working in Kenya, is intolerable. And that’s why Christian Aid is so keen to fund those leading the fightback.
It is working with the Anglican Church of Kenya Development Services (ADS), which reaches into the most remote communities in western Kenya.
It is helping sponsor saving and loan associations, subsistence farming projects and counselling groups, ensuring HIV sufferers get the economic and psychological help they need.
It is funding a rural transport network, bringing drugs and expertise to people in remote villages, and it is supporting the Kenya Network of Women with AIDS (Kenwa), one of the most inspirational projects in all of Kenya.
Eighteen years ago, the network began with five women. Today, it has 8,000 members and spearheads the fight against HIV.
All of those projects are succeeding, but their leaders all say they could do more if they had the funds.
In Nyanza province, ADS’s current target is to directly help 6,000 HIV sufferers, and it is working flat out to do so. But that region alone has a population of five million, an estimated 750,000 of whom have HIV.
There is, ADS acknowledges, much work to do. Christian Aid hopes its Christmas appeal can help them take vital steps on the long road ahead.
• If you would like to donate to Christian Aid’s Christmas Appeal, or would like to find out more about its work on health and HIV, visit christianaid.org.uk/christmas or call 0845 7000 300.
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