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Drought Poses Fatal Threat to Kenyans With HIV

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.

Blantina and her son

Free antiretroviral medications supported by CRS through AIDSRelief consortium help Blantina Mutuvi and her son stay healthy. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

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 needs.

"Now there is nothing you can plant," Blantina says. "I grew some maize this year, but I didn't get anything from it."

Years of drought make it difficult for people

Years of drought and poor crop harvests are making it difficult for people with HIV to grow or buy enough food to safely take their antiretroviral medications. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

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 Eastern Province.

"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, Kenya.

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