The Society of Jesus in Africa and Madagascar (JCAM) takes note of the frightening rising cases of HIV/AIDS infections among the youth in Africa. HIV/AIDS remains a public health concern across the globe, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. In commemoration of World AIDS Day 2022, JCAM’s theme “Equalise to address inequalities, end AIDS and promote lasting wellbeing for All” calls upon Non-governmental organizations and public health officials worldwide to address the inequalities associated with the rapid spread of HIV in communities and the promotion of wellbeing to all people. Characteristic to this works is the place of equality and Justice in the context of HIV & AIDS.
In this article I wish to base this discussion on the report highlighted by one of the Kenya dailies. The first is an excerpt from a Kenyan Nation Newspaper dated Saturday December 3rd, 2022, featured a story describing a sharp rise of HIV/AIDS infections among young people. The article: “Kenya loses 6 youngsters to AIDS daily, study says” that despite frequent public campaigns across the country to educate the public on preventive measures and health care, HIV is one of the most stigmatizing infections, Kenya loses about six people aged 15-24 to HIV/AIDS-related illnesses daily, with 2,257 adolescents death last year attributed to HIV/Aids; that represents an increase from 2,196 in 2020.
However, infections among young people are rising. It is estimated that Kenya registered 34,504 new HIV/Aids infections last year. In 2021, an estimated 8,270 men aged 30 and above died of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses compared to 6,902 women of the same age group. A report by the National Syndemic Disease Control Council estimated that 52 per cent of new infections occurred among people aged 15-29. Combined with children, the country lost about 4,098 souls below 19 to HIV/AIDS-related illnesses.
“Young adults fall in the bracket that is at the peak of sexual activity. It is a life of hard choices – satisfying their sexual curiosity, feeding their sexual drive, or suppressing their viral load,” says Dr Momanyi Ogeto of the Centre for Health Solutions, Kenya, who continues by stating that, “This is one of the most complicated cohorts. We need to understand them, talk to them, and come up with a multi-sector intervention from school-based, hospital, and population-specific and community-based to reduce new infections and HIV/AIDS-related deaths. It is a journey we must start to win.”
Parents and healthcare workers are being urged to start having a different conversation with adults on sex and HIV/AIDS education in schools before the onset of sexual activity. This will reduce stigma and delay first sex. National Syndemic Disease Control Council Chief Executive Officer Ruth Masha said local HIV/AIDS gains are fragile as the country does not focus on children. She urged Kenyans to stop condemning those giving HIV/AIDS and sex education to the young.
The second publication by the Kenya Daily Nation Newspaper dated Friday, December 2nd, 2022, featured an article; “Alarm as more pregnant women and teens test positive for Syphilis”. No need to remind here that sexually transmitted diseases and more importantly syphilis constitute an important driver of HIV infection. The article highlights details of the report dubbed, it is a race against time by the National Syndemic Disease Control Council which indicates that the number of women and infants affected by syphilis remains unacceptably high, the data contained in the World AIDS Day report 2022 reveals that the number of pregnant women diagnosed with syphilis increased by 35 per cent from 10,000 in 2018 to 14,873 in 2021. In seven Counties, Homabay, Kericho, Narok, Nandi, Busia, Baringo and Migori the syphilis positivity rates among women attending the antenatal clinic are higher than 2%. “It is crucial that all women are provided with early syphilis screening and treatment as part of high-quality antenatal care, to enable a positive pregnancy experience. In addition, all women diagnosed with syphilis and their infants require treatment,” says the study.
A report published in the Frontier in Public Health Journal last year also found a worrying spike in the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among adolescents in the country. The study conducted in Thika last year reveals that one in eight adolescents ages between 16 and 20 tested positive for gonorrhea, chlamydia trachomatis, trichomonas vaginalis (TV), and vaginal gram stains for vaginal dysbiosis.
In the effort of preventing HIV, Kenya introduced the HIV and syphilis test kit used in antenatal clinics in March 2018. Every woman visiting antenatal clinics must be tested for both HIV and Syphilis. National Syndemic Disease Control Council CEO, Ruth Masha, had earlier confirmed a resurgence of sexually transmitted diseases despite the availability of effective treatments and reliable prevention strategies.
“Two decades ago, we were not recording any case of syphilis, unfortunately, we are seeing a comeback, and something needs to be done. This is not only in women attending the antenatal but also in teenagers,” she said. “This is dangerous because it is the second-most common cause of stillbirths in the world. Even one mother testing positive for the disease should be a cause for concern,” she said.
Rendering Equality and Justice
From the discussion on the first article, to bolster the fight against HIV/AIDS, then there is the need for urgent viral load testing to be done to determine who is to be placed on which treatment, who is responding to and who is resisting treatment. According to data released by the National Syndemic Disease Control Council, Kenya has recorded 34, 540 new HIV infections in 2021 and for the last two years, the viral load reagents have been in short supply in most public hospitals, which means some of the people are not on treatment and are likely spreading the virus. The huge cost on the tests also seems to be deterring efforts put to combat the HIV infections as the tests cost between Sh10,000 and sh20,000, in private hospitals. The need to undertake viral testing is critical to monitoring how people living with the virus are doing, which averts many deaths. There is an urgent need to ensure all health facilities are able to do viral load tests to determine the amount of HIV in patient’s blood and therefore determine which medication is good for them. Once put on treatment routine viral load monitoring is an integral part of keeping HIV under control. When one keeps a close eye on their viral load, then they can help doctors determine the best way to take care of those affected with the virus. For the above to be achieved, this is a call to the government and donors, to allocate funding and procure drugs as a matter of urgency.
The above two stories reveal the fact that there is much to be done to prevent the spiking number of infection of HIV/AIDS and STIs. To ensure that we end AIDS by 2030, there is need for Equalization and Justice, this means all actors merge around the young people and the vulnerable people in society to provide an environment of compassion, empowerment, and access to basic human needs without discriminations.
Syphilis is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections globally, with approximately six million new cases occurring annually. Mother-to-child transmission of syphilis, or congenital syphilis, is usually devastating to the fetus if the maternal infection is not detected. Most untreated primary and secondary syphilis infections in pregnancy result in severe adverse pregnancy outcomes. In early maternal syphilis, the risk of mother-to-child transmission of syphilis can be up to 80 per cent. National Syndemic Disease Control Council states that, “Early diagnosis and adequate treatment of the mother, ideally before the second trimester, can quickly cure the fetus and minimize adverse outcomes.”
The Society of Jesus, through the Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) call us to exercise them by providing resources, when the person is internally broken whereby, we are capable of addressing life challenges including health threats. This is a call on all of us to accompany the young people, walk with the vulnerable, those who need utmost care (cura personalis) with God/self/into life/into the future.
The scenarios and numbers depicted by the extracts are a call to action that equality and justice in the context of HIV must be addressed through the Spirit of Ubuntu that ought to amalgamate the community, government and non-governmental organizations and the youth/adult/children living with HIV. Each component must work together in order to realize the common desire, of a healthier and resilient communities who have fullness of life.
By, Dennis Owuoche
Communications Officer, AJAN