Dr Joe Muriuki: Man whose strong will shaped HIV war

Joe Muriuki during a past World Aids Day celebration. [James Mwangi, Standard]

The late Dr Joe Muriuki gained unusual fame in 1989 from disclosing his HIV positive status. He was given three months to live. Never mind his surname translates to one who resurrected. In disclosing his status, he was following in the footsteps of Ugandan musician, Philly Lutaaya, who had become the face of HIV the previous year.

But there was a problem. HIV and Aids was not only perceived as a death sentence, but also a condition the political establishment thought should be kept under wraps for its potential to scare foreigners and ruin tourism.

And here was Joe Muriuki, then an accountant at the Nairobi City Council, confirming there was HIV in Kenya: Stigma, social isolation, discrimination, rejection, ridicule and fear of death from a disease then without a cure was what Muriuki and his family then of three boys, endured.

Muriuki had contracted HIV in 1986 but only learnt about it three years later after drastic weight loss.  Scanty information of a disease then associated with white gays, initially from Los Angeles, US, was to see thousands die every day before HIV and Aids was declared a national disaster. 

Dr Muriuki survived the daily carnage from the disease then nicknamed ‘Slim’ and for which he became a guinea pig to check the efficacy of Kenya’s early forays into production of an HIV cure, but which came to grief.  It was not until 1996 that the world got its first ART (Anti-Retroviral Therapy) triple dose drugs. That was a decade after Muriuki contracted HIV and 15 years after the pandemic had begun.

Still, ART drugs weren’t available in Africa, because big pharmaceuticals in First World countries like Switzerland wouldn’t let drug manufacturers in Second World nations like India manufacture generic versions affordable to Third World countries like South Africa  - one of the worst hit nations by the disease.

Kenya was unable to offer ARV support until then Kenya’s Minister of Health and current Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu had been advised that they were deemed ‘too expensive’ for State support.

But during the 2003 World AIDS Day, Ngilu paraded a patient called Jackline and her baby in front of President Mwai Kibaki who, shocked, said: ‘Give them these ARVs,’ and it became a policy. To date, Ngilu is still proud as ‘it saved many, many lives.’

But the reality of HIV was still being replicated through death of celebrities including South Africa’s Brenda Fassie, the ‘Madonna of the Townships’ who may have been managing her HIV-related anxiety using cocaine, instead of counseling, and eventually succumbed of a drug coma in May 2004.

Through countless efforts, initiatives and medical breakthroughs, HIV has been downscaled from a death sentence to a chronic but manageable.    

But in its more than 40 years existence, it has touched all families. Muriuki lived through it all to survive three-quarters of his workmates at the then City Council of Nairobi from where he was sacked after he declared he was HIV positive.

Sadly, Kenya is still dependent on donor funding of HIV with PEPFAR (US President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) fronted by President George W Bush which resulted in free ARVs – with Kenya being among the biggest beneficiaries.

All in all, more than 17 million African lives have been saved through PEPFAR, whose financing President Donald Trump tried thinning before he left office.

Admired for his strong-will, Muriuki lived through it and saw all that happen in his lifetime. Thirty years is long. He survived it to his death at 63.