Drought Poses Fatal Threat to Kenyans With HIV
November 29, 2009, —
By David Snyder and Debbie DeVoe
Residents of Mutomo in eastern Kenya are living through some
tough times—and have been for a number of years. Poor rains have left most
families without a harvest since 2002. Many have been able to eke out a living
by cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell. But now that the government is
enforcing a ban on charcoal, families are struggling to get by.
This struggle is even more difficult for people with HIV who
are taking antiretroviral medications—like Blantina Mutuvi.
"The drugs to me are the most important thing. When I
use them, I feel really well," Blantina says. "However, they can't be
used without food. If I take them without food, I might vomit."
Drug Effectiveness Threatened
Blantina receives her antiretroviral medications from Mutomo
Mission Hospital Comprehensive Care Center. It's one of 29 health facilities in
Kenya supported by the AIDSRelief consortium with funding from the U.S.
President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. AIDSRelief brings together the expertise of five partners, including Catholic Relief Services,to provide care and treatment to more than 470,000 people with HIV in 10 countries, including more than 170,000 people who are receiving free antiretroviral treatment.
Taking the powerful HIV medications on an empty stomach,
however, can increase side effects and reduce the drugs' effectiveness. Clients
are taught the importance of good nutrition to help their bodies process the
antiretroviral drugs and keep immune systems strong. Yet the extended drought
is making it difficult for Kenyans to grow or buy enough food for their daily
"Now there is nothing you can plant," Blantina
says. "I grew some maize this year, but I didn't get anything from it."
To make ends meet as the drought continues, Blantina is
selling firewood and water she fetches from shallow wells nearby. She is also
receiving food from an aid agency distributing emergency rations through Mutomo Hospital. It is enough, for now, to keep her and her family going.
Supporting Four Children, Two With HIV
This isn't easy though, as Blantina lost her husband years ago.
A young mother left to care for four young children, she was also left to deal
with the rumors that began circulating in her small village of Itumba in Kenya's
"When my husband died in 2004, people started telling
me he died from AIDS," she says. "But I didn't want to test myself,
because I was so worried I would be positive."
Worried even more for her children, Blantina eventually took
them for testing at the Mutomo Mission Hospital. Though two of her children
tested positive, Blantina says she was at least comforted to know that they
would be able to receive free assistance from Mutomo's Comprehensive Care
Center. It provides antiretroviral treatment to clients whose immune systems
have weakened significantly, treatment for common opportunistic infections,
access to support groups and more.
"If I am unwell or have a cold, I can come here and
they will treat me," Blantina says. "And I don't have to pay."
Now Blantina and her children are healthy and strong, but they
and thousands of others across Kenya continued to be plagued by drought. Sitting
in the shade of an overhang at Mutomo Hospital, Blantina chooses to look at her
blessings instead of the ongoing challenges.
She says she is grateful for the help and support she and
her children receive from the Comprehensive Care Center. And while food is
still a worry, at least she knows that the medical care and powerful HIV
medications her family needs to stay healthy are freely available, as they are
for more than 2,100 other Kenyans enrolled in the AIDSRelief program at Mutomo.
David Snyder is a photojournalist who has traveled to
more than 30 countries with Catholic Relief Services. Debbie DeVoe is CRS'
regional information officer for eastern and southern Africa, based in Nairobi,