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Fight against dreaded HIV bearing fruit

By Martin Sirengo | Jul 20th 2016 | 3 min read


NAIROBI: It is over three decades since HIV was discovered. From then, and before the advent of Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART), HIV claimed the lives of so many people. We have lost more than half of the over 78 million people who have been infected with HIV.

As a single disease, HIV has had serious consequences but has also provided valuable lessons for dealing with global health problems.

With the many advances that have been realised over the years, new HIV infections and HIV-related deaths are on the decline. It is reassuring that there are 17 million people on treatment. However, this represents just about 50 per cent of the People Living with HIV (PLHIV) globally.

In Kenya, we estimate that there are 1.5 million PLHIV, of whom over 900,000 are on treatment.

This scale-up of treatment has contributed to the prevention of many HIV-related deaths, from a high of about 170,000 deaths in 2000 to 36,000 deaths in 2015, representing about 100 deaths per day (4 deaths every hour). Treatment has tremendous health benefits not only to those living with HIV but also in preventing HIV transmission.

The use of ART for Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission has, for instance, contributed to 75 per cent reduction of new HIV infections among children from 27,000 in 2009 to 7,000 in 2015.

As Kenya launches the new test and treatment guidelines, we must reflect on the journey that we have travelled before getting here.

In the 1980s, HIV was equivalent to a death sentence. The coming of anti-retroviral drugs in the late 1990s brought hope and now PLHIV can lead normal lives while on treatment.

We have moved from offering ART to those who had advanced HIV to a more recent approach of offering treatment to those whose CD4 cell count is below 500.

Today, there is compelling scientific evidence that treating everyone who is HIV infected irrespective of CD4 count, has significant benefits including preventing early deaths, keeping away opportunistic infections and preventing transmission of HIV to sexual partners and babies born of HIV positive mothers.

There is no need to wait now, start treatment today at your nearest health facility of choice. This is what is called “test and start”. It’s also good news that the Ministry of Health through the National AIDS and STI Control Program (NASCOP) and partners has put in place a strategy to tailor clinic visits to client’s needs.

Even as ART is now being considered as a virtual vaccine against HIV, to defeat HIV, we must invest in a combination of interventions involving prevention and treatment aspects.

The proven prevention strategies include consistent and correct use of condoms, Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC), strategies for preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, harm reduction programmes for key populations and prevention of HIV transmission in health-care settings e.g. through safe blood transfusion services. Supportive services for vulnerable populations like cash transfer programmes are critical in removing vulnerabilities to HIV infection especially among orphans. Girls and boys must be kept in school for as long as it can take.

This as a social protection mechanism is not only important against HIV, but also for other health related dangers like substance abuse and early pregnancies.

It is out hope that the ongoing efforts to find a vaccine for HIV will bear fruit so that this scourge can be brought to rest. Meanwhile, let’s all be responsible in our life choices and sexual lives.

To get to zero, all of us have a role to play and it starts with you. And so, take an HIV test today and take control of your life.

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