Stigma contributes to Kenyan teens quitting HIV treatment

The United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS) has revealed that Kenyan teenagers are most likely to quit HIV treatment, thus undermining the fight against the virus.

According to the UNAIDS 2017 Global Update, treatment adherence by adolescents aged 15-19 in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda is lower and treatment failure rates are higher than in their older and younger counterparts, especially in teenagers transitioning to adult care from paediatric care.

“Studies in Kenya, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania indicate that young people aged 15 – 19 years are more likely to drop out of HIV care, both before and after starting antiretroviral therapy, than are those aged 10 – 14 years or those older than 20 years,” reads the report.

The report says that these adolescents are rejecting treatment due to stigma, discrimination and disclosure issues. Additionally, travel and waiting times at clinics have an influence on quitting medication.

These teenagers are part of the 71 034 people infected with HIV by 2015, according to Kenya’s National Aids & STI Control Program. They are in need of long antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, not only to prevent further transmission but also keep them alive.

The health ministry, through the Kenya Aids Strategic Framework (KASF), has laid out strategies that would be useful to reverse the rejection of HIV treatment by teenagers. Some of the recommended actions include establishing increasing access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, running stigma reduction campaigns, implementing evidence-based interventions and conducting HIV-related education in schools.

Unfortunately, Kenya has come under fire concerning its provision of SRH education and services, despite having the 2015 National Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Policy, which acknowledges that HIV/Aids testing in 15-19 year olds is low and that underreporting of sexually transmitted infections and HIV are due to lack of knowledge of the symptoms.

“Adolescents living with HIV face unique challenges as they transition to adulthood because they are less likely to be in school, likely to be orphaned, lack appropriate services and are often unable to negotiate contraceptive use or even access contraceptive methods,” the policy says.

This further exacerbates the inability of these teens to access antiretroviral treatment and ARVs. The policy further provides strategies to reduce the limitations for youth in accessing HIV treatment and reducing stigma, but the implementation is a problem.

In the Sexuality Education Study by the Guttmacher Institute, the dissemination of sexual and reproductive health education in Kenya was criticised as it does not foster enough critical thinking in the students to understand SRH better. Additionally it lacked the basic information on HIV information and human rights issues, including rights of people living with HIV.

“Topics such as forced sex, gender-based violence and intimate partner violence were largely ignored. The review emphasized that the information provided to students was insufficient to help in reducing the risk of HIV, STIs and unintended pregnancy,” the Guttmacher study highlighted.

All these indicators emphasise the findings in the UNAIDS report, and Kenya needs to come up with more strategies, not only to facilitate the access to SRH and HIV-related information and services for teens, but also to eliminate discrimination and stigma associated with receiving antiretroviral therapy and ARVs.

Featured image via Flickr