HIV, Hunger and The Virus
By Brian Osweta
Even as Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage all over the world, people who are living with HIV in vulnerable communities in Kenya seem to be having it the worst.
58-year-old Mary Waceke is among the PLWH in Mombasa, Kenya. To her, ever since the pandemic hit the country life took a new twist.
Having lived with the virus for over 15 years, Mary says it’s by the grace of God that she lives to see this day.
“When I got to learn about my status in 2004 I encountered a lot of challenges, as my family did not care about my situation. I thank God for the church where I used to worship, as the pastor held my hand. I had reached a stage where I was bedridden and had spots all over my body I was almost getting full blown AIDS.” She says.
She adds that her pastor convinced her to take the Antiretroviral Drugs even as she felt like life was coming to an end during that time.
According to the Mombasa County AIDS Strategic plan 2016-2020, the county has a HIV prevalence of 7.4%, with 54,600 persons living with HIV.
The plan also reports that HIV treatment coverage for adults in Mombasa stands at 60% while Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) coverage is at 78%.
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be hampering the gains in treating HIV in the county, as a number of PLWH have been affected greatly with the pandemic due to job losses.
Among these greatly affected, are women living with HIV in Mombasa who have decried lack of food, which hinders their adherence to taking ARV drugs.
Most of the women whose livelihoods have been affected by the Covid-19, have said that getting food has been quite a challenge, even as they live with the challenges of living with HIV.
Naomi Mwangada who is the Assistant Chairperson of the Ahadi Kiembeni Women’s Group, which is aimed at supporting women affected and infected with HIV/AIDS, says that many are faced with tough decisions.
“When the president announced that we had to stay at home things became hard. Some of us used to sell food to children in schools, now schools have been closed and we are at home there is no work and we have to eat!” Says Ms. Mwangada.
She adds that Some of the members have even been forced to skip taking their drugs, being afraid of the effects of taking them without food as it really makes them very weak.
Waceke who is also part of the group, adds that her poultry business has been greatly affected.
“I used to sell chicken to hotels but now I don’t have anywhere to take my chicken. I have to feed my children; I have young chicks that I need to feed, and I have rent to pay for the farm.” Says Waceke.
Dangers of skipping ARV drugs
Dr. Julius Musyimi who runs a HIV care clinic in Mombasa, has advised against skipping taking the drugs as the HIV virus takes advantage of this and starts to make copies of itself again.
“When you miss a pill, you drop the drugs bio availability in the system, meaning that If it was at 60% it will drop down to 40% and why do we need a peak level? It’s because the medicine fights the virus when it’s already in the body so when you lower the plasma levels of the medicine, then the virus gets to attack the body more as there is no sufficient defence. There are more chances of the virus mutating.” Said Dr. Musyimi.
He urges that it is important for the patients to take the drugs religiously no matter the circumstances.
Most of the women who are part of the Ahadi Kiembeni Women’s group have complained of the drugs being too strong for them when they take them without food.
“This morning I even lacked strength to even get up from bed. I don’t eat well enough. I used to do laundry for people now I can’t go to their houses anymore. I can only hope that God will see me through.” Said one of the members who did not want to be mentioned.
According to Dr. Musyimi, nutrition among HIV patients is really important for the medication to work effectively and that it is very challenging for a lot of patients who don’t have enough food during this Covid-19 period.
“For somebody who is HIV positive and is exposed to the Covid-19 virus and they have poor nutrition, it is catastrophic. They can die from this disease very fast as the body cannot fight the virus bearing in mind the HIV virus is competing with the Covid-19 to attack a weak body. A body that has been weakened by poor nutrition.” Said Dr. Musyimi.
Health Ministry’s Director of Health Dr. Patrick Amoth announced recently that the country has lost some HIV patients due to Corona.
“This is a second or third HIV positive case that we are reporting. Studies from South Africa indicated that those who are taking the ARV appropriately are able to achieve viral suppression.” Said Dr. Amoth.
At the moment Waceke together with her fellow group members are left to depend on well-wishers, hoping that one day things shall become better.
“In Mombasa we keep on wondering who receives the money that is meant to cater for people living with HIV, because we know it’s there. I have not seen any form of assistance from the government to help with my condition. I know of other counties getting support starting up farms, however here in Mombasa, I just don’t understand how things work.” Waceke laments.