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Stigma remains hurdle in Kenya’s fight against Aids

Three-year-old Ibraham Akinyi pushes a toy car made of scrap metal across a makeshift wooden table, oblivious to the horrors that befell his mother, Beatrice, after his father’s death from Aids in 2003.

“Two days after my husband’s funeral, a group of his relatives, including his father, came to my house and forced their way inside, pretending to be drunk,” the HIV-positive mother of two recalls as she sits in her one-room, mud-walled home in Kibera, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest slum.

“They told me, ‘Get out and go, take the kids.’ They said not to pack anything, it all belonged to them, and then tore the whole house down because they blamed me for his death,” said Akinyi (29), who suspects her philandering husband became infected by one of his many girlfriends.

Akinyi was diagnosed in 2003 during her pregnancy with Ibraham, who narrowly escaped infection after a course of antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. But her firstborn son, nine-year-old Clinton, was not as fortunate and has tested positive.

The single mother is one of the 1,3-million people — in this country of nearly 35-million — currently living with HIV/Aids in Kenya, 65 percent of whom are women between the ages of 19 and 45, according to National Aids Control Council statistics.

Since 1984, at least 1,5-million people are said to have died from Aids in Kenya, according to Health Ministry estimates.

Awareness campaigns have succeeded in reducing Kenya’s HIV/Aids prevalence rate to 6% in 2006 from 10% in the late 1990s, with condom use rising and a decline in the average number of sexual partners, according to a United Nations report.

Stigmatised

But HIV-positive Kenyans, like Akinyi, are often stigmatised by strangers and family alike who remain ignorant about the transmission and symptoms of the disease.

Since relocating after her husband’s death to the capital from her hometown of Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria, Akinyi has taken care not to let on she is infected with the virus, fearing similar reprisals from her neighbours.

“I can’t tell anyone because I fear for my children and how they would be treated by others,” Akinyi said. “My neighbours are already suspicious and are wary of me.”

“When people know you’re infected with the disease, they fear many aspects of the communal living typical in the slums — sharing water or toilets, shopping at the same stores,” said Dennis Oduor Omondi, an HIV/Aids counsellor with the African Medical and Research Foundation.

Despite the country’s best efforts to educate people about HIV/Aids prevention and treatment, Omondi said he believes there are large numbers of Kenyans, especially in poor areas, unaware of how it is transmitted.

“They don’t understand that they can’t get it through greeting someone, touching someone, even breathing the same air,” he said. “Stigma prevents people from getting educated about the disease and helps spread it further.”

Anne Muthoni, a widowed 33-year-old, echoes Akinyi’s concerns that her children’s future would be adversely affected if she were to disclose her HIV status to her friends and neighbours.

“I don’t want my children to suffer, to be teased or beaten up by their peers,” said Muthoni, who became infected after she turned to prostitution to support her five children when her husband died of malaria in 1998.

Despite making small strides in the fight against the epidemic, better integrating those living with HIV/Aids into the community and reducing the stigma attached to the disease remains one of the biggest hurdles, according to Charles Kaduwa, a programme officer for Women Fighting Aids in Kenya.

“Stigma prevents people from going for tests, from seeking treatment, from disclosing their HIV status to sexual partners or spouses,” he said. “It helps the epidemic to spread and stigma helps people infected with HIV die.” — AFP

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