Forced to live a secret life: 16-year-old girl born HIV+ in Mukuru kwa Njenga
- The life of Mirabel - not her real name, has always been dotted by secrets. Her mother revealed to her that she was born HIV+ when she was 15 years old.
- All the while, she believed she had a chest problem that demanded her to be consistently taking her medication. The life of secrecy affected how she would respond to her status once it was disclosed.
“I always have a hard time maintaining the time to take my medication. I always have to hide and take my ARV’s in secret when I am in school, at times, I have to wait for others students to leave the dormitory so that I can take my pills.’’
It is the life of Mirabel – not her real name, a 16 year old girl who lives in Nairobi’s Mukuru kwa Njenga informal settlements. Mirabel’s life has always been dotted by secrets. Her mother revealed to her that she was born HIV+ when she was 15 years old. All the while, she believed she had a chest problem that demanded her to be consistently taking her medication. The life of secrecy affected how she would respond to her status once it was disclosed.
“Whenever I go to school, I have to hide my drugs because our luggage gets inspected by teachers before we are allowed in school. I have a secret pocket I sewed in my uniform that helps me get in school with my ARV’s unnoticed. There was a time our dormitories were being inspected. One of the teachers found the drugs in my box, she then asked what they were for. I had to lie. I told her I have a chest problem. She took the bottles, read the information on them and she returned the bottles in my box. I am not sure whether she realized they were ARV’s.’’
Three decades ago, Kenya confirmed its first case of HIV/AIDS. Currently, the country has a youthful population that was born HIV positive and whom have experienced a rollercoaster of challenges including stigma. Young people born with the virus say they are forced to live a secret life as they are scared of being picked on as a result of their status.
For Mary – not her real name, life was normal until she became sickly at the age of 12.
“When I was in class 6, my mother used to grind some pills on a spoon, she would then mix the powder with water and had me take it. I frequently asked why I was taking the medicine and she would tell I had a chest problem.’’
“I always used to cough, I was weak and I didn’t have appetite. My mother took me to Coptic hospital where my blood was tested for HIV and the results came out positive. I was immediately put on medication.’’
Revelation of being HIV+
The revelation of being HIV+ did not sit well with Mirabel and Mary.
“I was angry. I asked my mother why she did not disclose my status early enough which then resulted in to an argument. I slept outside that day but the following day, I went home and apologized to her and I accepted to take my medicine.’’ Mirabel says.
Mary on the other hand says, “It was a sad day. It was truly sad. I can vividly remember that day. I did not have appetite.’’
Community health workers say, the increase in the number of HIV infections among young people is as a result of parents not disclosing their status early enough, and so when they engage in unprotected sex, they end up transferring the virus to their peers.
The Ministry of Health says that there is a worrying increase in the number of new HIV infections among young people even though the country has recorded a decline in HIV infections.
Dr. Ruth Masha, the National Aids Control Council (NACC) Chief Executive Officer said statistics show that adolescents and young people aged 29 years and below account for over 61 per cent of all new HIV infections in the country.
“Younger people are an obstacle in our quest to end new HIV infections by the year 2030. The strides we have made towards alleviating the HIV infections in the country will be eroded if we will not stop the increasing HIV infections among young people.’’ Said Dr. Masha
To put this into perspective, Mary says, “There was a time I had a boyfriend and we used to meet in the evening after school. One day I disclosed my status to him, he then demanded that we break up while accusing me that I may have infected him with the virus. I told him to go get tested as I had also just learnt of my status from my mother. I don’t know if he got tested but that was the end of our love story.’’
Working with HIV+ teens
Susan Ateka, a community health worker who works closely with teenagers who are HIV positive in Mukuru kwa Njenga has a cardinal assignment, that of ensuring the youth infected with HIV take their medication consistently and that their mental needs are well taken care of.
“We always advise parents to ensure their children born HIV positive know of their status by the time they are 10 years old. Make them understand what medication they are taking. And, if they find it difficult to explain to their children, we step in and even use the children’s age mates to talk to them just so that they do not feel like they are the only ones affected.’’
“We also teach them life skills when schools are closed. We have champions, who are young people aged 20 to 24 and they were born HIV positive. The champions gives talks to the younger ones. We also go to schools to give talks but we at times are not welcomed in public schools. I have to commend the principal of Embakasi girls secondary school, she allowed us to talk to her students. We currently have 52 girls who are on medication at the school and they are under our care.’’ Susan says
Eric Ambuche, a community leader at Mukuru kwa Njenga says, “Teenagers should not indulge in unprotected sex, in fact, some of us when we were in school knew that sex is after marriage. I call upon the government to create awareness on HIV among young people especially teenagers who are giving birth in the slums and they end up breastfeeding the babies therefore passing the virus to the young ones.’’
Well, Mirabel has an advice to young people who just found out they are living with the virus.
“Take your medication consistently and on time, you will complete your studies and still achieve your dreams because HIV is just a condition which you can live with normally. The only danger comes when you stop taking your ARV’s because you risk advancing to stage 4 which is AIDS. Once you get there, it will be difficult to reverse your situation.’’
In its 2018 report, the National Aids Control Council in Kenya, reported that the HIV prevalence among males and females aged 15-24 years was estimated at 1.34% and 2.61% in 2017 while and the overall HIV prevalence was 1.98%, which means there were 184,718 young adults living with HIV in 2017. In that year, new HIV infections were approximately 52,800 across all ages; 44,800 among people above the age of 15 and 8,000 among children aged below 14 years.
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