Poor and hungry: Alarm as HIV-positive patients stop taking ARVs

Turkana County Commissioner Jacob Ouma and County Health Executive Dr Francis Mariao on December 1, 2023, at Moi Gardens in Lodwar town donating relief food to HIV patients.

Photo credit: Sammy Lutta | Nation Media Group

Poor and hungry people living with HIV in Turkana County are stopping taking anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), a situation that officials warn is a major blow to the fight against the disease.

One of them, Eric* from California village on the outskirts of Lodwar town, said he had been living with the virus for nine years, but that access to food was his biggest challenge due to poverty.

He said that being poor and living near Lodwar town is a disadvantage because “no one will come to your house to give you relief food, unlike in remote villages where it is a common exercise”.

"I am on ARVs but taking the drugs without food makes me weaker and I can't go around begging for food from hotels and passers-by," said Eric, who is in his late 50s.

He noted that while he understands that adherence is critical to achieving viral suppression, the inability to have a reliable source of food can lead to permanent treatment resistance due to missed or late doses.

In 2022, the county health department estimated that a total of 19,783 people were living with HIV, but only 10,708 were on antiretroviral therapy (ART).

But Joseph Simiyu, the county coordinator for the National Syndemic Diseases Control Council, feared that non-adherence could lead to drug-resistant HIV caused by failure to achieve maximum viral suppression.

"Relevant stakeholders should work closely together to address specific causes of non-adherence, the most important of which is hunger. At the same time, individual patients should be reached through established structures from health facilities to the village level to identify specific challenges," said Mr Simiyu.

World Aids Day commemoration

Speaking during the World Aids Day commemoration at Moi Gardens in Lodwar town, County Commissioner Jacob Ouma said the Ministry of Interior is also committed to fighting the disease by ensuring that organised groups of HIV and Aids survivors are included in the distribution of relief food.

"County and national governments, faith-based organisations and development partners must work together to win the war against HIV. Through existing structures, we are donating relief food to poor patients who have no reliable source of food so that they can continue taking ARVs without interruption," said Mr Ouma.

He called for joint efforts to combat stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and Aids.

The Diocese of Lodwar was commended for enrolling people living with HIV in a food aid programme.

At the same time, the County Chief Officer for Preventive and Promotive Health, Peter Lomorukai, highlighted the importance of engaging youths in medical male circumcision, a measure that contributes to a 60 per cent reduction in HIV and Aids infection.

He said despite the current reduction in new HIV infections from 600 in 2021 to 542 in 2022, youth and adolescents aged 10-24 years contributed to 62 per cent.

The youth were urged to adopt preventive measures to minimise the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

"Most of our youth are being infected with top indicator linking the trend to minimal condom use. Male youth should embrace circumcision so that they embrace proper condom use," Mr Lomorukai said.