OPINION: Protect health of Kenyans living with HIV

By Evelyn Odhiambo On April 6, 2021, Health CS Mutahi Kagwe responded to outcry of Kenyans online urging the ministry to push for tax exemption of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) from USAID. Also Read: USAID, Kenyan government in tussle over distribution of ARVs Kagwe said: “As the government, we must ensure we look at how to look after own people to avoid such instances in the future.” According to the 5th schedule of the East African Community Customs Management Act, any donations into Kenya are taxable and can only be exempted by the National Treasury. Tax exemption is a good move, but the issue did not have to go this far: hospitals have been reporting shortages of ARV drugs for weeks now. According to the 2019 Global information and education on HIV and AIDS, 1.5 million Kenyans were living with HIV: 1.4million were adults aged 15 and over while 110,000 were children aged 0 to 14. In 2019 alone, a total of 41,408 people were newly infected with HIV, and more than 20,000 died of HIV-related causes. The HIV and AIDS in Kenya 2020 statistics from UNAIDS shows that there have been 42,000 new HIV infections and 21,000 related deaths. Also Read: First Lady Margaret Kenyatta calls for renewed commitment to shield infants from HIV, Syphilis And the Worlds AIDS Day report 2020, by Maisha youth indicates that 5.8 percent of females have approximately twice the prevalence of HIV compared to 3.1percent of males. The report also found that 942,653 females and 565,752 males were living with HIV as of December 2019. In 2015, Kenya adopted the World Health Organization’s recommendation to offer treatment to people diagnosed with HIV. As a result, one year later, around 940,000 adults and 60,000 children were accessing antiretroviral treatment (ART) which equates to 64% of adults and 65% of children. However, it’s critical to note that a significant percentage of HIV treatment is through external donations and funding. Kenya receives approximately Ksh. 60billion annually from the US government for HIV response with the funds geared towards supporting its vision for a stronger healthcare system delivering affordable, quality services to Kenyan men, women, and children. Since 2004, through PEPFAR, the US has invested Ksh. 700billion into HIV response, to ensure that no Kenyan living with HIV lacks drugs. With support for Kenyans living with HIV largely external, one wonders if the government really cares about its citizens. Recently, with the current pandemic, HIV patients have been adversely affected by limited access to ARVs. WHO also said that nearly 70 countries are at risk of having limited HIV and AIDS medication due to supply interruption by the pandemic. Many people living with HIV in Kenya could only get drugs for one month, which is not adequate as they are required to have their drugs for three months. USAID donated ARVs to Kenya to help support people living with HIV and to their dismay, the drugs were not released because of a tax dispute. As a typical Kenyan, I ask myself, how do you even tax a  donation? And this is the question that many Kenyans are asking the government: Why risk the lives of 1.5 million Kenyans? Also Read: Mombasa sex workers take to the streets over ARV shortage Even worse is that many pregnant women living with HIV are being denied the chance to prevent mother-to-child transmission. Women, men, babies, young people are forced to share a month of ARV drugs with each other. It’s critical to note that even after signing to the global 90-90-90 HIV target, prioritising Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and publicly announced its Big four Agenda on affordable healthcare for all by 2030, these might only be mere words on documents. It will be impossible to achieve the global agenda of an Africa-free AIDS by 2030 if many Kenyans are still unable to access HIV medication. Kenyans are tired. Our cry for better healthcare systems often lands on deaf ears. The pain of common mwananchi is unheard and unprioritized by the government. The Ministry of Health’s biggest task now is to ensure that the drugs are released from the port and that 1.5 million Kenyans are able to get these drugs in good time. It’s therefore important for the government to adequately invest in health care by ensuring more efforts on domestic resource mobilization reducing donor dependency. Ms. Evelyn Odhiambo is the Youth Coordinator Reproductive Health Network Kenya (RHNK) @Eve_Odhis

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