Sunday, September 27, 2009

Some Things Change, Some Stay the Same

The Preliminary Report of the Kenya Aids Indicator Survey (KAIS) was released last July and was based on data collected in 2007. Prevalence was estimated to be 7.8% among 15-49 year olds (7.4% among 15-64 year olds). Many parties expressed surprise that HIV prevalence had increased since 2003, when the Demographic and Health Survey estimated prevalence to be 6.7% among 15-49 year olds.

HIV prevalence in Kenya peaked in the late 1990s and fell rapidly thereafter into the early 2000s. Prevalence fell because death rates were very high. But death rates peaked in the early to mid 2000s. If there had been few new HIV infections in the early to mid 2000s, HIV should have stabilized at a fairly low level. This didn't happen. Instead, prevalence increased.

One possible reason that HIV prevalence has been increasing throughout this decade is that antiretroviral therapy (ART) has been keeping many HIV positive people alive. However, the number of Kenyans on ART by 2005 was very small. Numbers have increased since then, although it's not yet clear what effect this will have on national prevalence figures.

Another possible reason why HIV prevalence has been increasing is that there are many people becoming newly infected every year. While huge sums of money have been poured into treatment and care for HIV positive people and their dependents, very little has been spent on prevention. What has been spent on prevention has been wasted on pointless finger-wagging about how people should and shouldn't lead their sex lives.

The final KAIS report was launched in the last few days. I can't find a copy of it online but there have been many articles about it and they all, like this one, talk about the report as if these figures are new and surprising. It is not surprising that there are more people living in rural areas infected with HIV. The vast majority of Kenyans live in rural areas. Prevalence is lower in rural areas than in urban areas but the absolute numbers are higher. This is not a new trend.

Various commentators in various articles have resolved to deal with trends noted by the KAIS report but many of these trends go back many years. Even the KAIS figures are already two years out of date. And there are likely to be quite different trends now because, in case these commentators haven't noticed, some profound changes have taken place in the lives of all Kenyans. There was a violent election campaign, a violent election and a particularly violent post election period, during which many people were killed, injured and displaced. There have been energy shortages, food shortages, water shortages, a global economic collapse, increasing unemployment and, no doubt, countless other pressures on people's lives.

Some things are not the same now as they were two years ago, when data was collected for KAIS. They are certainly not the same as they were in 2003. But the HIV prevention work that is being carried out by Kenya's health and HIV agencies is pretty much unaffected by anything that has happened in the last ten and perhaps even twenty years.

Consequently, HIV prevention continues to be given low priority and takes forms that continue to have little or no impact. That's why a recent survey of 13-19 year olds shows that, many years and tens of millions of dollars later, less than 50% understand what abstinence means. More importantly, only 20% understand what being faithful means and only 7% fully comprehend condom use. The question is, do the 48% who can say what abstinence means really understand sex and safe sex? I think the answer is clearly 'no'; all they have taken in is a definition. They will not be able to protect themselves adequately, despite being able to parrot definitions of abstinence and the like.

HIV prevention work in Kenya needs to do new things, not continue with the failed, dogmatic activities of the past. Children (and adults) need to know what sex and safe sex are, they need to know how to protect themselves and often, they need protection. There are young people pouring into Nairobi and other cities now, they are desperate for work and until they find work, countless thousands will become involved in some form of transactional sex. People's living conditions need to be changed so that they don't face such dangers.

HIV policy needs to be based on what is happening now, not what was happening, or what someone thought was happening, years ago. And policies that failed years ago need to be changed, not shored up with excuses. HIV trends can change very quickly and all Kenyans are at risk of becoming infected, though some are at higher risk than others. There is no point in just concentrating on high prevalence areas, as one Kenyan WHO representative suggests; low prevalence areas can quickly become high prevalence areas. Also, absolute numbers can be a far better indicator than percentages when it comes to describing how an epidemic is spreading.

But the Kenyan government needs also to concentrate on people's lives, livelihoods, environments and opportunities. People still need the things they have always needed, health, education, social services, infrastructure, good housing, employment and protection from harm. Relevant authorities such as the National Aids Control Council and, indeed UNAIDS, need to be able to distinguish between the things that change and the things that don't change.


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