HIV+ Kenyans Forced to Choose Between Medicine & Food
Rosalia Adhiambo won’t take the free anti-HIV drugs that would prolong her life. The spiraling price of food in Kenya means she can’t afford to feed both her grandniece and herself.
So she feeds 5-year-old Emily and doesn’t take her own medicine, fearing that the nausea she would get from taking the drugs without adequate food will make her too weak to look for work.
Prices for staple foods this year are almost twice as high as in 2009, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization says. The rising prices and a dwindling of funds for HIV programs mean countless poor families must decide whether to focus on the health of an HIV-positive adult or on a child’s hunger.
Valerian Kamito, a nurse at the clinic that gives Adhiambo her food, says some patients are refusing to start treatment for HIV and around a quarter of his 1,555 patients on anti-HIV drugs are now skipping their medication.
"They say they cannot take them on an empty stomach," Kamito said. Before prices rose, he said, "it was very rare."
HIV-positive adults need 10 percent more calories than other people just to maintain their body weight. Children with HIV need between 30 percent to 50 percent more calories than other children. They will lose weight and be vulnerable to infections without those calories, said nutritionist Kate Greenaway from the aid agency Catholic Relief Services.
Annual inflation in Kenya is around 20 percent, but wages haven’t kept pace. Around half of Kenyans live on less than $2 a day, including 52-year-old Adhiambo, who makes $1 each day she does housework.
"When there is nothing to eat, we go to bed hungry. I tell Emily it is because God did not send us food today," said Adhiambo, motioning to a cardboard picture of Jesus on the wall of their corrugated iron shack.
"Emily stands before that picture and prays, ’God, please remember to send us food tomorrow,’" said Adhiambo.
She had work for two weeks last month, but the younger women get most of the jobs. Adhiambo relies on her daily free meal of rice, beans and vegetables from a clinic run by Catholic Relief Services in the Mathare slum, though she sometimes misses that if she is searching for work. The staff there are trying to persuade her to take her anti-HIV drugs.
But Adhiambo carries the food home and gives most of it to Emily, who isn’t signed up for the CRS program, though workers there are trying to get her into it. The bright-eyed little girl in the torn blue dress is almost all that’s left of Adhiambo’s family. Adhiambo’s brother, two sisters and husband are all dead. Emily’s mother is alive, but ill. She refuses to be tested. Emily has been tested and is HIV positive.
Adhiambo needs to take drugs called anti-retrovirals, or ARVs, and so will Emily. Taken regularly, the medicine can prolong life by years, possibly decades. But if taken sporadically, the medicine will lose its effectiveness.
Patients say the medicine can cause nausea, fatigue, and diarrhea at first, especially if there is no food to go with it, said Greenaway. The drugs also cause a ravenous hunger as the body starts to recover. Adhiambo, afraid that the side effects will prevent her from working, refuses to take the pills.