Some parents in Kenya take the secret of their HIV status to their grave, leaving their children in ignorance and helplessness. Brian Omondi, who was born with HIV, started taking antiretrovirals (ARVs) when he was 10 years old.
However, it was only at the age of 14, when his mother died, that he knew why he was taking these tablets. Now 22 years old and an activist in the fight against HIV, he works with a religious group. Brian Omondi indicates that his condition was not diagnosed at birth.
During his early childhood years in the coastal city of Mombasa, he remembers being sick: “I was sick most of the time, but my health has deteriorated, so my mother decided I had to do a screening test.”
“That’s when I started taking ARVs, but my mother never told me why I was taking these medications.”
It was when he went to live with his aunt after the death of his mother that his status was disclosed in the small community where he lived. When some people found out he was HIV-positive, they made fun of him. Parents often warn their children against playing with HIV-positive people. “I remember that girl in high school, we met and she dropped me in the face: “You, the HIV positive person.” It hurt me.
Healing in secret
Although adolescents and young people account for the bulk of new HIV infections in Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of people born with HIV are living secretly with this disease. Some patients are forced to keep their medication secret and, like Mr. Omondi, choose to take their tablets at night.
According to BBC Africa, another victim identified as Winnie Orende, 27, describes the shock she felt when she discovered she had HIV at age 12. “When I lost my mother, after two months, my doctor called my sister [elder] and asked me to go to the hospital alone to see him,” she says.
The doctor knew that her mother had died of AIDS and wanted to check if she was HIV positive. The test was then positive. “At that age, I was so confused, I had never had sex before, I’m not a prostitute, so how could I get HIV?”
Ironically, she was the youngest of her siblings and the only one to have contracted her mother’s virus. “I was wondering why me, because the worst part is that I’m the only one in a family of four living with the virus, which really affected me for a while.”
The whole school knew that I had HIV
She refused to accept her diagnosis until she was admitted to the hospital several times. Her doctor then informed the school principal of her condition to explain that she may be absent for medical examinations. Unfortunately, other teachers were informed and word of mouth throughout the school knew she was HIV positive.
“I am confronted with the stigma of the community where I live here in Kongowea, Mombasa, the problem started when they knew my status, and people called me all the names,” says Orende, who is currently working as a volunteer at a school and health center where she advises patients with HIV.
“I felt bad, it would have been better if they had informed me of my status, rather than someone else telling me, I wanted to kill myself, but I realized that even if I killed myself, my sister would suffer, so I stopped having suicidal thoughts,” she says.
Mother-to-child transmission is common in Kenya, but the number of cases is declining as pregnant women are asked to go to a clinic where they will automatically be tested for HIV. If they are HIV-positive, they will be asked to give birth at the hospital. For four to six weeks, their baby will receive a medicine called zidovudine, which will reduce the likelihood of HIV transmission.
According to Kenya’s National AIDS Council, between 2012 and 2017, this preventive treatment reduced the number of new HIV infections in children by 38%.
If, after six weeks, a baby is confirmed to be HIV-positive, he is given a combination of antiretroviral drugs that he will have to take for life to prevent the virus from destroying the immune system.