Saturday, January 19, 2013

Day 192 - HIV Doesn’t Kill People

Children gawking in the slums of Kiambiu
Raw waste running through the streets in Kiambiu
The streets in Kiambiu, outside Nairobi 

A man sitting outside his shop in Kiambiu 
Children gathering water from a stream in the streets of Kiambiu
A boy standing outside the police station in Kiambiu
Christina navigating the slippery roads in Kiambiu

January 19, 2013 (Sam)

      Here I thought that HIV was killing hundreds of thousands of people here in Africa each year, but it turns out I was wrong. I was talking to an HIV positive woman the other day and she brought me up to speed. “HIV doesn’t kill people, and neither does AIDS.” she said matter-of-factly.

      Since wrapping things up at Beacon of Hope, Christina and I have had the opportunity to work quite a bit recently in a local slum called Kiambiu. A sprawling settlement of mud huts and tin shacks, Kiambiu covers over 52 acres of land bordering Eastleigh, Buru-Buru, and Moi Air Base in Nairobi. Kiambiu comes from the Swahili word "mbiu-mbiu", which translates "to be on the run." And this seems to be an accurate description of many of the inhabitants of Kiambiu. Home to an estimated 100,000 people, the average household income here is only $36 per month. Most of the residents eke out their meager existence working as casual day-laborers in the surrounding neighborhoods of Eastleigh.

      HIV and AIDS run rampant here. Infection rates soar in the neighborhoods of Kiambiu, but accurate statistics are largely unavailable because of the thousands of people who refuse to get tested. And this takes us back to the fact that HIV/AIDS doesn’t actually kill people. So what is killing these hundreds of thousands of people around sub-Saharan Africa each year? Stigma.

      The woman who I’m talking to, a lifelong resident of Kiambiu, elaborates. She found out that she was HIV positive almost 10 years ago and since then has come to accept her status. She takes antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) every day to keep her immune system strong, and for 10 years now, she’s remained fairly healthy. But discrimination has plagued her life ever since she first started disclosing her status to people. First it was her family. She told them her newly discovered status, and they rejected her. Turned her and her three boys out. Then her neighbors. She informed them that she was HIV positive, and they stopped letting their children come to her house and play with her kids. Then her community. She began to advocate against HIV/AIDS stigma, freely divulging her status, and suddenly she was being harassed in public, humiliated by old friends, and shunned by everyone she knew.

      And these reactions are precisely what keeps hundreds and thousands of people from getting tested. Humiliation. Isolation. Harassment. Rejection. Some people kill themselves after they find out their status. It’s too much for them to bear. Others simply deny it, pretending they don’t know and refusing to alter their lifestyle. Hundreds of clinics in Kenya, and dozens surrounding Kiambiu offer ARVs for free to HIV positive men and women. And yet people refuse to go get them. Refuse to take them. Pretend like they aren’t there.

      The lack of education surrounding this disease is exactly what makes the disease so deadly. Thousands of people are living prosperous lives while still dealing with the reality that they are HIV positive. Thousands more are dying because they refuse to deal with that reality.

      But there is hope. People are working, nay fighting, to end the misconceptions and subsequent stigmatization associated with HIV and AIDS. The woman I’m talking to, just last week, was able to talk a man out of ending his own life after he found out his status. She’s helped clear up some of the misbeliefs that he has about his condition, and now she’s helping coach him back toward the road of stability and hope. I am thankful for this woman, and the part she is playing in combating not just the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS, but the even deadlier player that continues to wreak havoc in Kiambiu and other communities like it, stigma.

      "Stigma remains the single most important barrier to public action. It is a main reason why too many people are afraid to see a doctor to determine whether they have the disease, or to seek treatment if so. It helps make AIDS the silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it, or taking easily available precautions. Stigma is a chief reason why the AIDS epidemic continues to devastate societies around the world."
      -Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary-General

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