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I have to think of ways to hide my ‘sweets’, says schoolgirl :: Kenya



Various organisations match at Shianda market along KakamegaMumias road in Mumias East to mark World Aids Day. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

In summary

  • Teenagers in Boarding schools still struggling with ARVs
  • She is among the group of students who have devised all manner of tricks to fight AIDS stigma from teachers and fellow students
  • For some, when the struggle to hide the drugs gets intense, they stop taking them altogether

Opening days are a nightmare for Caroline, a Form Two student in Nairobi. She dreads the regular checks at the gate when they are reporting back to school.

“I have to think of ways to hide my ‘sweets’, so that nobody knows that I am on ARVs,” she says.


30 years of hope and despair in the long search for elusive AIDS cure

They refer to the ARVs as sweets in their HIV care youth group where she was registered when she was diagnosed with the virus seven years ago at nine years old.

She is among the group of students who have devised all manner of tricks to fight stigma from teachers and fellow students. They stuff cotton into containers holding the ARVs to silence the rattling sound the medicines make as they walk, while others hide them inside packets of sanitary towels or in their undergarments.

“When people know you are sick, other students stop associating with you. They would not even borrow your spoon at the dining hall. It happened to a girl in our group; for her, the mistake she did was disclose her status to a classmate who spread it to everyone,” says Caroline.

For some, when the struggle to hide the drugs gets intense, they stop taking them altogether.

Many teenagers living with HIV tell horror stories of humiliation and bullying that came after classmates or teachers discovered they were HIV positive.

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One of them tearfully recounted how during a random dormitory check, the matron found a bottle of her ARVs under her bed.

“She immediately called for a parade, displayed the drugs and exposed me. I felt humiliated and no longer wish to go back to the same school,” she said.


Knowing your status is the first step in addressing HIV

Some schools assign a specific teacher to monitor the student’s adherence if the parents disclose their status, and even this, the students say, raises suspicion among their peers.

Network for People Living with HIV Chairman Erick Okioma said teenagers, especially those in boarding schools, still battle with stigma from peers who are not as informed on HIV issues.

The Kenya HIV Estimates 2018 by the National AIDS Control Programme (NASCOP) indicate that 105,230 adolescents are living with HIV. Some 20,663 are on ARVS but only 6,700 have their viral load suppressed. Statistics point out that there are 8,177 new infections per year and 2,072 annual AIDS related deaths among youths.

“While AIDS related deaths have halved in children since 2010, they have only fallen by 5% in adolescents. AIDS, in other words, is far from over, especially for young people,” said Linda-Gail Bekker, International AIDS Society President.

Okioma blamed parents for not disclosing to their children early enough on why they are on ARVs, and some students end up finding out about their status late in life.

He said a career master in school is expected to guide and counsel more than 1,000 students, adding that schools need professional psychologists.

A caregiver of persons living with HIV, Isaac Rabari, said many HIV positive teenagers request not to go back to school due to stigma.


Let’s fight HIV with renewed enthusiasm


Rabari, who has a 12-year-old HIV positive daughter, said he sometimes struggles to convince her to take medication.

“It has been difficult explaining to her why she is taking medication and not her other four siblings,” said Rabari.

Okioma said most of the teenagers take drugs when schools are closed and abscond when they open.

He said in an ongoing research at a community level, preliminary statistics between children who are in boarding school vis-à-vis day scholars shows that the viral load of those in boarding is high, which means that they are missing their doses.

“Self-efficacy is the best. When you task a teacher to give a child medication chances of adherence are minimum,” Okioma said. Kisumu Boys High School Principal Dennis Abok admitted that the students undergo challenges, adding that they have deliberately had to consult with parents during admission to identify health issues, including HIV.

“I develop a personal relationship with them, keep their drugs in my office and give them tablets they can take for two days,” said Abok.  

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Anti-HIV fight on right track

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