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Date: 04-11-2022

In commemoration of World AIDS Day, This year's event, themed "Let Communities Lead", was held at Kinoru Stadium in Meru to highlight the county, which has the highest number of teenage pregnancies in the country.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health, Nakhumicha S. Wafula, lauded community-driven initiatives for their pivotal role in combating HIV/AIDS during a ceremony held in Meru County. Recognizing the enduring commitment of communities, the Cabinet Secretary emphasized their significant contributions spanning over three decades in tackling HIV since the epidemic's onset. Speaking at the event, she highlighted the indispensable role communities play in providing essential treatment, prevention, care, and support.

The Health Cabinet Secretary commended the invaluable efforts of Community Health Promoters (CHPs) and acknowledged their integral role in extending healthcare services, particularly in resource-limited settings. She underscored the importance of engaging CHPs due to their intimate understanding of local issues, rapport within the community, and cost-effective healthcare provision. Nakhumicha urged the integration of HIV interventions into essential healthcare packages to ensure sustainable coverage for individuals living with HIV. She also called for a concerted effort to address gaps in HIV interventions, specifically emphasizing the need to end sexual violence against children and combat new HIV infections among adolescents.

Governor Kawira Mwangaza also expressed support for community healthcare workers, applauding the government's deployment of kits for Community Health Promoters and pledging collaborative efforts for their standardization and remuneration. This initiative will be jointly funded by the national and county governments. The theme of this year's World AIDS Day, "Let Communities Lead," served as a poignant reminder to eradicate HIV-related stigma while honouring those affected by the virus.

During the event attended by Medical Services Principal Secretary Harry Kimtai the CS highlighted significant strides in HIV/AIDS management, noting that 1.3 million out of 1.4 million affected individuals in Kenya are receiving antiretroviral treatment across 3,000 health facilities, encompassing children and breastfeeding mothers. The annual event served as a platform to commemorate progress made in addressing HIV and AIDS while reiterating the commitment to collectively work towards a future where HIV is no longer a public health threat. A survey conducted by the National Syndemic Diseases Control Council (NSDCC) shows that of the 15,389 women who sought antenatal care at various health facilities in Meru between January and May this year, 3,998 were teenage girls.

The shocking data, which represents 26 per cent - the highest rate in the country - also revealed that some of the girls were as young as 10 years old, with the majority being secondary school students. This means that three out of ten expectant mothers in Meru are teenage girls whose education has been disrupted by the greater challenge of exposure to the killer HIV virus.
Dr Ruth Laibon-Masha, the NSDCC Chief Executive Officer, says teenage pregnancies in Meru have been on the rise for the past seven years, and if left unchecked, the trend will reverse the gains made in suppressing new HIV infections. "We have chosen Meru to host this year's World Aids Day in response to a cry for help from the region. We need all local leaders and stakeholders to recognize the worrying trend that is directly hampering efforts to eliminate new HIV infections," said Dr Laibon-Masha.

The CEO said the overlapping challenge of new HIV infections, adolescent pregnancies and sexual and gender-based violence among young people, known as the 'triple threat', was hampering progress in the fight against the disease. Dr Laibon Masha told a gathering of community leaders yesterday that it was unacceptable for society to watch young girls become child mothers and denied education due to parental neglect and poor cultural practices. "Moreover, these challenges represent a complex web of vulnerabilities and have profound implications for health, population and development, including education, economic opportunities and the overall well-being of adolescent girls," she said.

Within Meru County, the NSDCC survey identified Igembe North as the worst affected with Mutuati Sub County Hospital overwhelmed by teenage pregnancy cases. The Aids Council in collaboration with the National Council on Population and Development (NCPD), Ministry of Internal Affairs and National Administration and other government ministries, county governments, partners and stakeholders have launched a national dialogue on ending the triple threat. Dr Laibon-Masha emphasized the need for sustained multi-sectoral collaboration, effective coordination and resources to address underlying inequalities, including policy gaps, social, economic, legal and cultural factors to achieve the desired outcomes.

Much more than a celebration of what has been achieved over the decades; this year's theme is a call to action to empower and support communities to take the lead in achieving the goal of ending HIV and AIDS as a public health threat by 2030. The day was observed around the world as communities come together to show support for people living with and affected by HIV, and to remember those who have lost their lives to the virus. The National Syndemic Diseases Control Council (NSDCC) has called on all communities in the country to actively participate in the fight against HIV/AIDS, especially in combating new infections as well as stigmatization.

Addressing journalists in Meru town, where the national commemoration of this year’s World AIDS Day will take place (Friday, December 1), NSDCC Chief Executive Officer Ms. Ruth Laibon-Masha said communities should by now be aware that stigmatization of infected persons is bad, as well as fighting other cultural practices that might result in new infections. “The 2023 World AIDS Day theme, ‘Let Communities Lead’, highlights the importance of community-led responses working alongside other public health systems in addressing HIV-related stigma and discrimination and providing HIV prevention education and interventions to support treatment adherence,” said Ms. Masha. She added that there was a great need for all the stakeholders to invest in communities in order to ensure these issues are addressed directly at the grassroots level. “In this regard, every sector should communicate with those it serves about their specific roles in addressing this menace. Kenya is seventh globally in terms of people living with HIV, and this means that despite the efforts we are putting in, stigma still stands in our way,” said Ms. Masha. She added that Kenyan men should also be engaged in the conversation, considering that some were the sources of infections for newborns and breastfeeding children.

“When a man goes out there and engages in unprotected sex with a sick woman, then he transfers the virus to her breastfeeding wife, who in turn infects the child. It is high time that society understands that it is not only the mother who can contribute to mother-child transmission but also the father,” said Ms. Masha. She added that Kenya has made tremendous progress in combating its substantial HIV epidemic, doubling the number of people on lifelong antiretroviral treatment from 656,369 in 2013 to 1,294,339 in 2023. However, she added, despite these achievements, the country grapples with the challenge of new HIV infections among children, adolescents, and young people, with reports of an estimated 62 new infections per week among adolescents aged 10–19. The country fell short of achieving the target to reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission rates to less than 5 per cent by 2020, recording a transmission rate of 8.6 per cent in 2022.
In Meru County, with a population of approximately 1,775,511 in 2022, the HIV situation is a significant concern. As of 2023, there are 30,912 individuals living with HIV, with 29,433 adults (15 years and above) and 1,479 children (0–14 years). The HIV prevalence rate in the county is 2.4 per cent, with a higher prevalence rate among females (3.7 per cent) compared to males (1.3 per cent). In 2020, there were 543 new HIV infections, with 443 occurring in adults and 100 in children. The ‘Triple Threat’ in Meru County refers to the interconnected challenges of new HIV infections, teenage pregnancies, and sexual and gender-based violence among adolescents and young women aged 10 to 19 years. Adolescents aged 10–19 years account for 62 per cent of new weekly HIV infections, and they make up 18 per cent of all antenatal care attendances. In terms of gender-based violence cases, adolescents aged 10–19 contribute 33 per cent of reported cases in the county.

Ms. Masha said the NSDCC is fully committed to addressing the Triple Threat in Meru County through collaborations with local authorities, healthcare professionals, and communities to implement evidence-based interventions and policies that prioritize the health, safety, and empowerment of adolescents and young adults. “With collective efforts and support from all the stakeholders, we aim to successfully combat the Triple Threat and create a brighter future for Meru County,” said Ms Masha.
Alarming data from health facilities on rising teenage pregnancies in Meru County informed the choice of venue for this year's World AIDS Day celebrations.