HIV awareness promoter in Meru County, Joy Mwiregi has been bold enough to disclose her status to potential suitors.
While her brevity to accept and reveal her status has enabled her to cope with the stigma that comes with the virus, it has often robbed her a chance to love. But she has no regrets.
Unlike Mwiregi, a number of many youths living with HIV have been reluctant to disclose their status, a factor largely attributed to rising cases of infections.
“There are many people living with HIV but do not accept their status. Once you do not accept yourself, nobody will accept you. So sometimes a change in the mindset is key to addressing the stigma,” said Mwiregi.
According to statistics from National Aids Control Council (NACC), HIV prevalence rate in Kenya is highest among the youth at 51% and while in Meru County infection rate is at 2.5%.
During a televised discussion held in Meru County with various youth groups on KBC Channel1 in conjunction with the Council, the youths narrated how economic hardships, exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic has led to some of them engaging in irresponsible behavior which increases chances of in infections.
NACC HIV Cordinator in Meru County Marione Masha disclosed that there are currently 31,601 persons living with HIV in the county of whom 39% are young people.
Masha says suppression of the virus among young people who are infected has been low largely due to non-adherence to medication as a result of stigma and disclosure.
According to the Council, Meru County reported 765 new infections and 471 HIV/AIDS-related deaths. Masha said the high HIV prevalence rate in the county could be attributed to the fact that the region is the economic hub and a host to many technical institutions.
“The youth need to be empowered in order to address new infections. That’s why as NACC we are linking the youth to programmes like Kazi kwa Vijana, Women Enterprise Fund and other agribusiness programmes. We need to empower them physically and even mentally,” said Masha.
Raven Mwenda, a peer educator in Meru County, noted that due to limited opportunities, the youth in the county have been forced to engage in sexual acts with older men and women in a bid to make ends meet.
According to Mwenda, stigma has curtailed awareness among youth.
“There are already pre-conceived ideas about the diseases among the youth. As a peer educator they are also not receptive of the information given to them by other young people due to negative attitude,” said raven.
While coronavirus pandemic has curtailed awareness reach, NACC has established nine AIDS coordinating committees in the region that create awareness in schools in collaboration with the Ministry of Education while it has also intensified campaigns online.
Another peer educator, Gladys Kathure admits that with covid, most girls in urban centres have been forced to engage in prostitution which has increased the risk of infection.
She says the idleness, brought about by joblessness among the youth can be addressed through economic empowerment programmes.
“The government needs to expand the Kazi Kwa Vijana programme. I urge girls to tap such programmes for economic benefits and the youth can also collaborate to start a project which will keep them busy and receive support from the government.”