HIV in Kenya: Choosing to Live, Not to Die

(by James Okong’o) - Nairobi, 15. May 2018

HIV is not a death sentence as many tend to believe. A HIV positive woman tells how together with her husband they have lived through stigmatization in a society that still holds some ancient archaic cultural beliefs in high regard. They figured out how to manage it in a way that works for them and may help others.
“In my community, people living with HIV and AIDs are still stigmatized to date. As a person living with HIV, one of the hardest thing to do for me was to come out. I was afraid, afraid to lose the people I care about. I wasn’t sure if my friends and family would accept the ‘new’ me. At first I was scared, sad and angry, but with time all these changed,” said Mrs. Maximilla Looyo, a resident of Kakuma town in Turkana West Sub-County.

Facing Denial for Several Years

HIV prevention and ARV-treatment have reduced new infections in Kenya. ©ADH/Jörg Loeffke

In 2008, Mrs. Looyo got pregnant with her second baby and decided to go for a routine medical check-up at a local health facility. She visited the clinic to ascertain that the foetus that was growing inside her was in good health just like any other normal pregnant woman would do. She left the clinic a happy woman, but one week later during an appointment, the doctor summoned her to his office and she was given the “distressing news” about her being HIV positive.

“I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t comprehend how I contracted HIV, because I was happily married. I thought about the baby inside me: was the baby in good health? I also thought about my husband and I didn’t know how to break the news to him,” said Looyo. To her, it was a defining moment. After a few months, she broke the news to her husband who at first lived in ‘denial’ for a few years. However, in early 2012 Looyo’s husband visited a hospital where he also tested HIV positive. He was put on antiretroviral drugs (ARV) immediately, and during this period the couple decided to come out together.

Life Continues with Appropriate Treatment and Behaviour

Mrs. Maximilla Looyo tells our colleague James Okong´o about her life with HIV. @Johanniter/Rose Chomba

Despite the temporary family crisis, Mrs. Looyo had already started living on ARV and had given birth to three healthy babies since then. “I know that HIV cannot stop me from living a long, happy and fulfilling life”, she told us in her home in Kakuma and added that she knows for certain that with the right treatment and support, it is possible to live as long as average persons. Mrs. Looyo has worked for the past nine years as a volunteer health worker and currently she works with 25 local households in the region together with AIC Health Ministries (AICHM), the local partner organisation of Johanniter. Besides working as community health volunteer in Kakuma, the couple also runs successful businesses in the town that helps them provide for their family.

“It has not been easy working as a community health volunteer in this region since majority of the people here live in adverse poverty. There exists too much ignorance about almost everything and a lot of misconceptions about living with HIV. People do not want to be put on ARV. Others are so poor, hence they cannot afford good meals which are essential during their treatment,” said Looyo.
AICHM has been implementing for the past one and a half years a HIV program in Turkana West and Turkana North Sub-Counties with funding from Global Fund Kenya. The objective of the project is to reduce HIV infection rates by 75 percent and reduce HIV related mortalities by 25 percent through prevention programs. 1.6 million people are living with HIV in Kenya, approximately 60,000 persons are newly infected each year. Although the numbers are reducing, Mrs. Looyo would like to see other stakeholders joining AICHM in this just cause so that more people especially in the remote areas of Turkana could be reached. Based on her experience she knows that everybody lives different. However and besides the many challenges, the program has helped to save many lives that otherwise would have been lost.

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