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Kiambu youth group turns tide on scourge

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

Within the precinct of Nazareth Hospital, Kiambu County, three young people stir a blue solution vigorously. It’s a monthly process of making soap. One of the activities the young people living with HIV/Aids engage in when they meet for their clinic sessions.

“It’s a good break from just focusing on our status. We meet, share our experiences, keep busy, learn skills and have a good time,” says PK, a confident and inquisitive lad as his friends Grace and Dan nod in agreement. 

PK, 23 was diagnosed with HIV in 2008 just as he was about to sit his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education(KCPE) examination. The tiniest in his class, PK suffered malnutrition and was sickly before the doctors made the diagnosis.

Grace terms her diagnosis with HIV as mysterious. She was nine when doctors discovered she was HIV-positive. It was difficult explaining how she contracted the virus since both parents are HIV negative.

“My parents had it rough, and my mother almost committed suicide. Doctors insisted that I undergo a DNA test to confirm if I was really their biological child, but my parents refused,” says the 23 year old.

It’s only after losing both his parents in 2004 that Dan’s guardians discovered that he had HIV. Growing Up, Grace, PK and Dan were made to believe that they were on daily pills to treat chronic conditions. When they grew older, it was devastating to discover that they were living with a disease that attracted shame and stigma from the society.

As adolescents living with HIV, adhering to medication did not come easy. “There is always the fear that someone will see you taking the medication and find out your status.

Taking medication requires a lot of discipline as it has to be taken in specific times of the day that the doctor and patient agree on,” says Dan, 21, an Electrical Engineering student at a university in Kiambu. Since joining a HIV youth support group at Nazareth Hospital in 2015, he feels motivated to adhere to his treatment.

There are 132 youths like Dan aged 10-24 years in the support group that were either diagnosed with HIV as children or adolescents and are now taking charge of their health. According to Eric Munene, Programme Coordinator, HIV Clinic, Nazareth Hospital, the idea to start a youth programme was informed by the ambitious global treatment 90-90-90 aimed at ending the Aids epidemic.

“The first 90 focuses on testing to ensure that 90 per cent of people living with HIV know their status by 2020 and are linked to care.

The second 90 is about having those diagnosed with HIV start anti-retroviral treatment while the last one is about viral suppression. Our focus was to achieve the third 90 among the youths,” he says.

Countrywide, there is low adherence to anti-retroviral treatment among youths, which in turn leads to low viral suppression. “In our case the situation was so dire that we lost five  youths to HIV in 2015 alone,”adds Munene.

When patients adhere to ART by taking their medication as advised by medics, it becomes difficult for the disease to progress or affect the normal functioning of the body.

Successful viral suppression also lowers the chances of spreading HIV. The youth programme was started to increase engagement with youths living with HIV by packaging information in a way they could identify with.

“Low adherence to drugs was mainly due to the fact that youths felt like information was being imposed on them. To bridge this gap we came up with a peer mentorship programme where we empower youths with information and they then disseminate it to others,”says Munene.

While in the process of learning more about HIV, youths engage in income generating activities such as yoghurt making, bead work, art work, soap making and farming. Currently, the hospital is the only market for their products. The hospital has seven other satellite clinics within Kiambu running similar programmes that are impacting on over 350 youths.

There have been significant positive effects of this programme. There has been an improvement of viral suppression from 76 per cent in 2015 to 92 per cent currently, which is attributable to high adherence to ART among the youths.

Hospital admissions for the youths have decreased from 10 per year when we began to only four in a year now. Besides, as youths learn more about taking charge of their health, they also acquire skills, which they can use to earn a living. Income generated from these skills helps the youths get facilitation to regularly attend their clinics, which take place once a month.

Recently released statistics by National AIDS Control Council (NACC), there were 52,767 new infections in 2017 with young people 15-24 accounting for one third of the figure (17,677). Kiambu County recorded 730 new infections among youths 15-24 in 2017.

It tops the eight counties in Mt Kenya region with the highest number of new infections among youths which contribute 61 per cent of the overall figure. 

Widespread substance abuse is one of the factors that’s contributing to high HIV new infections in Kiambu county youths. “Judgement is impaired when one is under influence of drugs, which may lead to engagement in irresponsible sexual behavior,” says Munene.

Owing to its proximity to the capital city, Kiambu has many institutions of higher learning with a high number of youths. Drug abuse is also escalated by a high rate of unemployment in the county. 

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