Kenya's mass HIV testing drive gives villagers new lease of life

Lurambi- Kenya (PANA) -- Edson Akala has never been so relieved in his lifetime.
After several months of self-reflection on whether to take an HIV/AIDS test, Aka l a, 18, braved the storm on an early Tuesday morning for a date with a team of he a lth professionals.
Having lived with the fear of turning positive to a disease still considered a d eath warrant to most of the local residents of the Eshiburu village in Lurambi d i vision, Western Kenya, Akala finally decided to go for an HIV test after overcom i ng the fear of stigmatisation.
"I am very proud of myself.
I had a lot of suspicion that I would turn positive because there have been rumours that the girl I befriended was positive after go i ng out with a man known to be HIV positive in the locality," Akala said, clutchi n g a pack of goodies.
In his pack were several rolls of condoms, supplied by the government, a newly m anufactured water purifier, known as Strawguard, supplied free by a Swiss firm, V estergaard Frandsen and a packet of long-lasting mosquito bed net from the same f irm.
"I doubted myself that is why I decided I would take this test.
I would not have come to this place if it was under the normal circumstances.
Going to the Volun t ary Counseling and testing centres (VCT) is never very easy, but this was much d i fferent," he said.
Akala admitted that the 10 minutes it took waiting for the results of the test w ere torturous, but the results were stimulating, which offers him an opportunity to preserve himself.
Akala, a trainee motor vehicle mechanic, said his biggest worry was the prospect of turning positive to HIV, adding to his list of family woes.
"They (villagers ) would have tied me to a tractor to pull me over to this place for the test.
" For a long time in Eshiburu, a sleepy township housing the local provincial admi nistration offices, visiting a VCT has been considered an admission of guilt or r easonable suspicion and consequently, the isolation and stigma that comes with i t .
"I decided to test so that I could be prepared to face my future.
My mother has been living with HIV/AIDS but she has never told us as family members.
We found o ut by ourselves by checking her handbag where we found the documents," Akala rev e aled.
A partial orphan, Akala said his father succumbed to the disease in 2003 when he was in lower primary school but the mother has yet to declare her status to the rest of the family.
For him, the prospect of turning positive to the disease, now widely considered manageable would have come with a raft of other challenges which he was not prep a red to add to his mother's list of family woes.
"It is a big challenge and the anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) are not worthy, beca use you prolong your life for a few more years but knowing that these will event u ally overwhelm you before you eventually die especially if you are too poor to g u arantee your nutrition.
" Akala lamented that while the government has been providing ARVs for free, they forget that the people in rural areas who use these drugs are not guaranteed of p roper nutrition.
"The people who are mostly affected are very poor people who only have one prope r meal a day, for a child whose mother cannot afford to offer three meals a day, it becomes difficult to imagine after testing positive, you leave your mother wi t h the duty of care.
" James Okwiri knew about HIV/AIDS but never imagined he would get it wrong if he carefully chose his sexual partner.
"I knew that HIV/AIDS existed but all I want e d was to live my life to the fullest and my father had the money to offer that l i fe," he said.
After testing positive to the disease, Okwiri looks much healthier and admitted that he would be spreading the disease the same way he got it, if everyone assum e d that only all HIV/AIDS positive people showed obvious signs, but he is not jus t about to do that.
Proudly holding his mother's hand to a victory dance, Okwiri said he would have succumbed to the disease years ago, if his mother had not taken care of him.
"It was a big shock for me.
I could not believe that I had been affected because all along, I knew I had never had sexual intercourse with anybody who showed si g ns of the disease.
I did not know that not all HIV positive people show signs of physical weariness.
" Okwiri is among a host of some 500 volunteer counselors and professionals workin g on a new promotional drive to get more Kenyans to take HIV test.
The failure t o get more people to know their HIV status is blamed for the spiraling infections rate.
Kenyan authorities have joined hands with the Swiss textiles firm, Vestergaard F randsen, to combat three major sources of illness and death in western Kenya.
These are malaria, diarrhea and HIV/AIDS through mass distribution of nets, wate r purifiers and condoms.
As a result of the mass nets distribution, government officials said bed nets ow nership and usage has increased from 4.
2 million people, equivalent to 12 per ce n t of the national population in 2002, to 25.
2 million people in 2007, equivalent to 70 per cent of the population.
The Vestergaard campaign in Western Kenya, is looking into ways of increasing th e enrolment rate for HIV/AIDS testing to combat repeat infections and the spread .
"HIV remains a catastrophic public health disaster for our country," said Dr.
Ja mes Gesami, assistant minister for Public Health and Sanitation, while the lates t statistics showed that three out of five infected people are females living in r ural areas.
The government contends that HIV testing and counseling remained key pillars to prevention.
"If you know your status, it is possible to get treatment," Dr.
Gesa m i said.
"I have a chance to plan for my future," declared David Chibole, the 33-year-old father of five, who decided to check his status after testing negative in 2002 f or the first time.
"I am happy I am still negative after testing in 2002 before I married.
" Although he tested negative, Chibole admitted the test this time around had requ ired more courage to undergo, saying "I really trembled.
I did not know I would r eally turn negative.
I am happy and grateful I have tested negative and I swear I will never go back to my past lifestyle.
" He said the village lifestyle posses the greatest threat to an HIV-free society.
Most of the time, the funerals and the village beer parties pose risks for incr e ased transmission of HIV.
The government is waiting for the results of the Lurambi campaign before designi ng the shape of future promotional testing campaigns.
In Lurambi, the weeklong testing, which kicked off 16 September would last till 22 September, targeting 40,000 people.
The government wants 80 per cent of the people to get tested by 2010 and to achi eve this, a number of strategies, including expanding mobile VCT, provider initi a ted services, mass campaigns for testing, have been employed, Gesami said.
He said the Lurambi campaign provides valuable lessons for expanding the access to testing and counseling services as those who do not know their status continu e to threaten the lives of their partners.
Judith Mukolwe, 48, did not believe she would test negative to HIV/AIDS despite leading a straight lifestyle.
The mother of seven said the sugarbelt region has n ever been free of HIV/AIDS over the years, with the harvesting season as its hig h est transmission phase.
"The men are always raving mad whenever they receive the payment for the sugar d elivered to the factories.
They leave home to rent apartments in Kakamega town.
I t becomes obvious that they go looking for younger girls," she said.
"When the money runs out, they return home and we gladly welcome them back.
I ha d a lot of fear that I would turn positive because of late, I have been having a series of infections, stomach aches and diarrhea, I feared for myselft," she add e d.
For 34-year-old Phyllis Josina, the spread of HIV/AIDS to every household is som ething to be afraid of and which requires everyone to check their status, just t o get more prepared.
"The disease has spread to the village, to every household, it is at the family level, that is why it is important to know one's status.
It is even worse becaus e there is uncontrolled illicit sex among the younger girls and boys," Josina not e d.
Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, whose company sponsored the week-long testing drive , said the turnout for this particular campaign was something to be proud of.
"My instinct tells me to look for solutions to make the queues move faster.
Ther e is need to encourage testing because words have never cured anyone.
It is time to move the HIV/AIDS campaign from words to action.
It is my strong belief we sh a ll succeed," Frandsen said.
According to him, the government would get the full figures on the HIV trends in rural areas.
"It is obvious this has never been done.
This is the biggest gift I have ever given and this is providing encouragement to the people, who think it is worth it.

24 september 2008 16:06:00

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