Release date
November 29, 2009

Drought Poses Fatal Threat to Kenyans With HIV

November 29, 2009, —

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


"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,