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Signs of hope as Aids fete is marked

The World Aids Day, marked since 1988 to raise both money and awareness for the pandemic, was celebrated in Kenya in style, with signs emerging that the country was on its way to win the war against the scourge.
Zachary Ochieng

Unlike previous World Aids day festivities that were only graced by cabinet ministers, this year s fete in Kenya was marked with a difference. It was presided over by President Mwai Kibaki and attended by among others Vice-President Moody Awori, Health minister Charity Ngilu, Internal security minister Chris Murungaru and representatives of various UN agencies.

Besides, president Kibaki used the occasion to launch the Pamoja campaign for behavioural change. The day also saw the relaunch of the controversy-ridden Constituency Aids Control Committees [CACCs].

But most important of all, the World Health Organisation [WHO], through its Assistant Director Dr Jack Chow launched the 3x5 campaign, an initiative that aims to get 3 million people worldwide on anti-retrovirals by the year 2005.

Like last year, this year s theme was Fighting stigma and discrimination , underlined by the slogan Live and let live . President Kibaki urged Kenyans not to be afraid of or stigmatise those infected with the HIV virus. He added that stigma and discrimination is a major stumbling block in the war against HIV/AIDS.

Noting that the war on Aids was beginning to bear fruit, president Kibaki said that the national prevalence rate had fallen down to 10.2 per cent this year from 13.1 per cent in 2001. The daily death toll is also down to 300, up from 700 last year. This is a positive sign that the problem could be tackled if there was determination , he observed.

But he was quick to add that it was not yet time to celebrate. My call upon Kenyans today is to remain committed and steadfast in the fight. We should not celebrate over these modest gains. We must not relax until the pandemic is virtually wiped out of our midst . The president urged politicians to fight Aids with the same zeal with which they tackle their opponents.

While observing that the cabinet sub-committee on Aids chaired by him may provide ideas on how to wage the war, he called upon every leader to marshall his people to the battle ground if victory is to come Kenya s way. The president echoed his Vice-president s sentiments at a workshop held for MPs in Mombasa a few days earlier.

Awori had admitted that there was general lack of political commitment to fight Aids. And his message was blunt: Go out there and sensitise the people on the sriousness of the Aids scourge and tell those with the virus of the possibility to live and contribute positively to the development of this nation . The first Aids case was diagnosed in the country in 1984 but the pandemic was only declared a national disaster in 1999.

Signs that the country is winning the war against Aids is also manifested by the increased number of people visiting the country s 193 Voluntary Counselling and Testing Centres [VCTs]. According to the Director of the National Aids/STDs Control Programme [NASCOP] Dr Kenneth Chebet, death rates from HIV/AIDS related conditions have fallen significantly.

With nearly 12000 Kenyans on anti-retrovirals, the mortalities have been delayed. Anti-retroviral therapy has kept them alive , he said. Incidentally, more than 200000 Kenyans need anti-retrovirals but only 12000 have access to them. But the good news is that a drug costing less than KES 1000 per month [US$1.5] is now available in the country.

Ngilu said at the function that Triomun had been imported and would be given free of charge in government hospitals to 140000 patients who cannot afford. To illustrate the efficacy of anti-retrovirals, Ngilu introduced a vibrant young girl who, only three months ago was emaciated due to lack of treatment and persistent stigmatization by her parents. But after being put on anti-retrovirals, Jacqueline Moroe now looks healthy.

However, major challenges still abound. According to Dr Chebet, the greatest challenge facing Kenya today is the maturing of the epidemic. About 2.5 million Kenyans will develop full- blown Aids and die without access to treatment and care. We should be prepared to see more people dying. This will not mean that the rates are rising, only that the virus is maturing. The trick is now to get enough anti-retrovirals and other treatments to help delay the inevitable deaths.

Dr Chebet adds that another aspect of Kenya s main challenges in the war against Aids is matching awareness and behavioural change . Though about 95 per cent of the adult population know about the virus and how it is spread, there is little evidence that people are changing their behaviour.

According to the joint United Nations Programme on Aids [UNAIDS], the global Aids epidemic shows no signs of abetting. This year alone, 5million people got infected, 700000 of them being children. The year has also recorded the highest deaths ever 3million people. Globally 40million people are living with the virus.

UNAIDS says that over the next decade, without effective treatment and care, they will join the ranks of more than 20million people who have succumbed to Aids since the first clinical evidence was reported in 1981.

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