That Covid-19 left an indelible mark on our collective psyche is unquestionable. The pandemic swept across the globe leading to closure of workplaces and entertainment spots and causing millions of deaths.
The mental strain caused by job losses, restricted mobility and general health concerns were exacerbated. Its impact on healthcare systems was immediate and severe. Hospital beds were full, and in some cases, all but the most urgent health issues were encouraged to wait it out. People living with HIV/AIDS were among the most affected because the virus does not have the same immediacy as Covid-19, requiring their care to become secondary for some time.
Additionally, Covid-19 control measures affected global, regional and local supply chain to the extent that anti-retroviral drugs, critical to suppressing HIV’s viral load in people living with the virus, were in short supply. The supply chain issues even went as far as disrupting availability of laboratory reagents used in testing for HIV, in turn slowing down testing among high-risk groups.
Fortunately, the pandemic struck at a time when Kenya was making strides toward its goal of eliminating HIV/AIDS by 2030. Despite the disruption, the country saw a 68.5 per cent reduction in new infections and a 43 per cent reduction in AIDS-related deaths between 2013 and 2021, according to the Kenya World AIDS Day Progress Report 2013-2021.
This progress can be attributed to several factors, including increased and consistent public spending on HIV response and treatment, increased testing rates, and increased access to anti-retroviral drugs and other care.
According to the National AIDS Control Council, Kenya’s HIV positive population stood at 1.43 million in 2021, indicating that the combined efforts of the public and private sectors have yielded significant results. Improving access to information for both the public and medical professionals was a key component of the drive to reduce new infections and increase treatment uptake, with the goal of not only encouraging more people to get tested, but also reducing the stigma associated with the disease.
Pregnant women, for example, have benefited greatly from HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, with at least 9 out of every 10 pregnant women being tested for the virus and 8 out of 10 infants born to HIV positive mothers being placed on prophylaxis.
According to the World Aids Day Report 2013-2021, mother-to-child transmissions have decreased from 13.9 per cent in 2013 to 9.7 per cent in 2021. This equates to 65,000 fewer new cases among children, resulting in the current 78,465 children under the age of 15 living with HIV. The inclusion of sexual health education in primary and secondary school curricula greatly increased awareness of the disease, its risks, and treatments. Conversations about the virus became more mainstream in and beyond mainstream media.
Some public information campaigns were so effective that anyone who watched TV in early 2000s recalls late President Mwai Kibaki telling us; “pamoja tuangamize ukimwi.”
Despite the commendable progress, we should not rest on our laurels. Covid-19 taught us that progress can be halted.
In 2020, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that the pandemic, with its resulting school closures, financial hardship, mental stress, and general insecurity, created conditions for increased abuse, sexual violence, and transactional sex, which increases chances of HIV transmission among adolescents.
After marking the World AIDS Day on December 1, we can look to the theme; “Equalize” as a clarion call to increase access to HIV information, testing and treatment services. To achieve the goals that we have set for ourselves as a country, we must not relent in our efforts to eliminate new infections and prevent AIDS-related deaths.
-Dr Kiptum is the Chief Paediatrician at Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital