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When the mention of HIV/Aids was a death sentence

Hand holding AIDS awareness ribbon [Courtesy]

On Valentine’s day last week, Joe Muriuki, one of the first Kenyans to publicly share his HIV-positive status succumbed to oesophagus cancer.

Muriuki had gone public about his status in 1987, three years after the "slimming disease" hit our shores.

His declaration came at the stigma around the disease was such that its name, AIDS was mentioned in whispers. A person associated with it then was considered as a walking corpse and even relatives shunned burials while spouses and children were shamed by society.

Aids, the disease caused by HIV, was largely attributed to promiscuity and gay sex and had earned the name ‘sex disease’ not only in Kenya, but also abroad.

In 1991, British singer Freddie Mercury died from Aids-related complications. His friend, pop star and actor Phil Collins, described the death as a tragedy, expressing his admiration and affection for his friend.

“But if you go around leading a pretty much promiscuous life, as he did, then you always run the risk of Aids,” Collins is quoted as saying in press reports published on December 8, 1991, which captured the stigma surrounding Aids with a screamer: “The big names are also human and can also get Aids.”

The story listed celebrities such as Rhumba maestro Franco Luambo Makiadi, who died in 1989 explaining that he  had succumbed to “the disease for which there is no cure”.

Others, who also made it on the list and still alive include basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers and retired upon testing positive for the virus.

Like Muriuki three years earlier, Johnson made public his HIV status and became a voice against stigma.

“I did my best to accommodate as many women as I could – most of them through unprotected sex,” Johnson said, advocating for safe sex.

He currently leads a healthy life and is HIV-undetectable and consistently takes his medication.

Three decades after Muriuki got society start talking about  HIV/Aids openly, Kenya has made significant steps in its fight against the disease.

Through advocacy, many are heeding to the call for safe sex. The Ministry of Health reports that rHIV prevalence rate had dropped to 4.25 per cent in 2021.

The number of Aids-related deaths has also followed the downward trend. From a death toll of 200,000 in 1996, to 19,486 recorded last year.

And much as stigma is low, it persists, as many Kenyans are aware of their status.