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What's Being Done to Fight HIV in Kenya?

July 27, 2012

When the severity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic became clear to the Kenyan Government, they sought assistance from outside agencies. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was one of these agencies.

The CDC is a U.S. government agency and has been investing in improving Kenyan health care for over 30 years. Malaria was its initial focus, but in the past ten years, the focus has been widened to include HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and other health issues. HIV/AIDS is a huge challenge for Kenya.

The HIV prevalence in Kenya is currently around 7 percent  but pockets of the country,  specifically the district of Nyanza where the CDC Kenya is located, have more than double that, at 15 percent. What does this U.S. government institution do in the middle of this remote region of Kenya?

Former President George W. Bush founded the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003, and the US government allocated $15 billion to fight AIDS. IN 2008, PEPFAR was reauthorized and funded to the tune of $48 billion over five years. Of this money, $500 million is allocated to fight HIV/AIDS in Kenya, with the CDC receiving 50 percent of this; and other health agencies the rest.

In fact, the single biggest change for public health in Kenya was brought by the founding of PEPFAR, according to Dr. Kayla Laserson of the CDC  in Kenya.

Kayla has been in Kenya for 6 years and is the Director of Kenyan Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) / CDC Field Research Station. In June 2012, Laserson spoke with passion and energy about the work of the CDC, to 11 new media journalists and bloggers visiting the station with the International Reporting Project. She oversees over 950 staff working on approximately 60 research projects. Most of the staff members are Kenyan.

The success of their mission lies in the hands of these Kenyans. The CDC does not import health care workers from the United States, but recruits in the villages and towns of Kenya. The acceptance of the program in the local communities is crucial.

One important initiative is the Health and Disease Surveillance System which monitors 220, 000 Kenyans in the Nyanza District. Health care workers visit the homes of those taking part in this program every four months and gather data about the health and well-being of the families. They record births, deaths, and illnesses, ask the participants about education and migration and offer HIV/AIDS tests and counseling.

We accompanied these local health care workers on their rounds, in one rural area of the Nyanza province, outside the city of Kisumu. After a long drive on dusty red roads, we stopped at a small gathering of very basic houses, many of them with straw roofs.

This was the Africa of my imagination, far from the crowds and the noise of Nairobi where we had started our journey. Dirt tracks, smiling children, and brightly clad women with bowls of fruit balanced on their heads.

It seemed quite idyllic, although the reality is of course very different. I asked one of the doctors accompanying us why so many Kenyans leave the lush and plentiful countryside for the harsh life in Nairobi slums. Even the poverty here seemed more bearable, and there was at least a possibility of growing crops and being in some way self-sufficient.

There is a feeling, he said, that working in the fields, or tending a farm, is not seen as ‘work’; that many people feel the real work is a white collar job in an office. He also reminded us we were seeing the countryside at the end of summer, after the rainy season, when the crops are abundant and the roads passable.

At other times of the year, the countryside is unforgiving, and a crop failure disastrous. Many of the large fields of corn we passed were not owned by locals, but by incomers who bought up huge parcels of land in order to farm them.

We walked into a small clearing with several simple buildings spread around. It was the home of Teresia and Peter Ouma, who were to be tested for HIV/AIDS. After being invited in, I sat down and began to prepare myself for what followed.

MondayTeresia and Peter’s story.

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