By ALLY JAMAH
Increasing calls to “downgrade” HIV/Aids from being a “national disaster” have met stiff resistance from Special Programmes Minister Esther Murugi.
This comes as debate is raging between top government officials on whether Aids is still an emergency as it was in 1998 when it was declared a national disaster or whether firefighting it is no longer needed. Some of them feel Aids should be downgraded and replaced with cancer and other Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs).
Some donor countries, including the UK, are also pushing for HIV/Aids to be treated like other diseases within the ministries of health rather than having stand-alone institutions and programmes to counter it.
Speaking Monday in Nairobi during a HIV/Aids workshop, Murugi said the calls are premature since the disease is still a big killer.
“In fact, we should increase the profile and funding to HIV rather than reduce it. We know cancer is a major problem but HIV is worse,” she said at the UN stakeholder workshop to discuss reviewing of the National Strategic plan to combat HIV/Aids.
Kenya is home to one of the world’s harshest HIV and AIDS epidemics. An estimated 1.3 million people are living with the condition and in 2009 80,000 people died from Aids-related illnesses.
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Kenya’s HIV prevalence peaked during 2000 and, according to the latest figures, has dramatically reduced to around 6.3 per cent.
The burden of NCDs, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes, has recorded a dramatic increase in Kenya with an estimated 80,000 Kenyans being diagnosed with cancer every year.
But UNaids Country Co-ordinator for Kenya Dr Erasmus Morah said Aids is not as big an emergency is it was in the late 1990s in Kenya with effective long-term treatment and detection having been developed since then.
“We now need a longer-term perspective to respond to the disease not handle it as a disaster. it is still serious but we know better how to handle it than before. Infections and deaths can be dramatically reduced with the tools we have currently,” he said.
Director of the National Aids Control Council Prof Alloys Orago said that although Aids has stabilised from the highest peaks of infection in the past decade, the disease was still a far bigger emergency than non-communicable diseases.
Executive Director of the Liverpool VCT, Care and Treatment Dr Nduku Kilonzo, said fighting Aids must be integrated into the ministries of Health rather than being a stand alone programme. But she insisted that Aids was still an emergency in Kenya despite the progress made in cutting down the number of deaths.
“Currently for every two people we put on treatment, three are infected. Plus more than half of those living with the disease are not yet on treatment,” she said.
Orago said that the immediate goal is to integrate HIV programmes with interventions tackling TB, maternal and child health.