Archive for May, 2009

HIV/ AIDS Prevalence among East Africans in Mass. Rises

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Thirty nine-year-old Beth Hastie has lived with HIV for more than 18 years.

During this time, she has received a lot of care and support from close friends and relatives, which has made it easier for her to cope with her illness. 
“I have for the most part received a lot of care and support from close friends and relatives,” Hastie said in an email to Ajabu Africa. 

Hastie was 21 years old when she contracted HIV. While studying English literature at Harvard University in 1990, Hastie was forcefully raped by an acquaintance after a date.

“I went on a date with someone I had just met and after we returned to our dorms at Harvard, he forcefully had sex with me right in my room,” she said. “I tried to resist, but he overpowered me. I wish knew some self defense tactics to fight the guy off or at least scream for help.” 

Hastie was too embarrassed to scream for help.

” My curriculum advisor shared the room next to mine and my other friends lived close by, so I did not want them to hear that I was being raped,” she said.

Hastie developed some symptoms a few weeks after the incident, which disappeared. 

“The flu-like symptoms lasted a week or two then completely went away,” she said. 

Hastie took a test two years later when she learned about early symptoms of HIV. 

“I tested positive in 1992,” she said. “It was a very traumatic experience and very isolating. I did not tell many people at first and finally joined a support group two years later to get support from others living with HIV, which was incredibly helpful and supportive.” 

Today Hastie tells everyone about her HIV status and is living positively with the disease. 

“You can live a long productive life with HIV as long as you get early testing, acceptance and timely medical help, “she said. 

Hastie, who is the director of Community Organization and Development 
at Boston, Mass.,-based Justice Resource Institute-Health, Center for Training and Professional Development or CTPD,(website), now spends her time raising HIV awareness in various communities in Massachusetts. 

CTPD is a community capacity building program that designs and presents developmentally and linguistically accessible curricula and trainings for the HIV/AIDS Bureau of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, placing special emphasis on a participatory approach to education that is consistent with adult learning principles. 

Last weekend Hastie joined Kenyan-born HIV researcher Dr. Richard Wamai, who is a visiting assistant professor at Northeastern University and a group of 10 Kenyans, at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass., to discuss HIV prevalence among Africans in the state. Rosette Serwanga, the director of the Sub Saharan African or SSA, project at CTPD also attended the meeting. 

Serwanga is a Ugandan and has previously studied and lived in kenya for about six years.

According to Massachusetts Department of Public Health or DPH, Sub-Saharan Africans compose 30 percent of those living with HIV and 37 percent of new infections among non-U.S. born people in the state. Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana are among the top 10 countries with the highest number of HIV cases in the state.

The panel brainstormed on the best and most effective way the state of Massachusetts can provide the critically needed interventions against the epidemic. 

During the discussion, Serwanga informed the participants that HIV infection rates among Sub-Saharan Africans living in Massachusetts have increased sharply in recent years.

To respond to growing problem in the African Community, she said, DPH in conjunction with CTPD is embarking on a project to channel HIV/AIDS prevention and care resources directly to African organizations. 

“DPH is looking for new strategies to decrease the number of new infections and increase the number of people accessing care,” Serwanga said. 

“As part of this project, we are collecting information from Kenyan, Ghanaian, Nigerian and Ugandan communities to help identify viable organizations and/or partners that have the infrastructure to support a project funded by DPH.” 

Richard Wamai, who has done extensive research on HIV/AIDS since 2001 and whose works have been published in various journals, including Science and Future HIV/AIDS Therapy and BMC Public Health , told participants that there were 38 cases of reported HIV infections in the Kenyan community in Mass., in 2006, but the number rose dramatically to 134 by 2008. 

Uganda, he said, had the highest number of new infections within the same time span with 33 cases in 2006 and 233 in 2008. 

Cape Verde Islands came in second with 34 cases in 2006 and 139 in 2008, he said. 

Wamai also displayed statistics from a survey conducted in Kenya in 2007 and published in 2008 about the knowledge of HIV status among HIV Infected Individuals aged between 16 and 64 years. 

The survey, he said, found that 56 percent of Kenyans infected with HIV never tested for HIV in their lives, while 26 percent reported themselves as uninfected, but ended up testing positive. 16 percent correctly reported themselves as HIV-positive and tested positive, while 2 percent of the data was missing, he said. 

“If 138 Kenyans and 233 Ugandans in Mass alone sought medical help after falling very ill, how about those who have not yet developed the symptoms?” one panelist asked. “They could easily be in the thousands.” 

The participants decried the lack of an honest discussion about HIV/ AIDs in the Kenyan Community in Massachusetts. 

“Nobody wants to talk aggressively about this issue in our community,” said Rev. Samuel Waiyaki of Faith Service Ministries. “It’s still a taboo subject. Everyone needs to be very careful. Parents should talk openly about the dangers of acquiring HIV to the dozens of the increasing numbers of young Africans in America.” 

Rev. Kimohu occasionally organizes HIV awareness seminars in conjunction with Afya Bora program (Kiswahili for Good Health) run by Dr. Peter Ngige, a member of his church and African for Improved Access program, a not-for-profit organization based in Jamaica Plains, Mass. 

One panelist, Roseline Kemuma, revealed that she has been HIV-positive for about 15 years and seized the opportunity to discuss her battle with the sickness.

Kemuma said she got infected with HIV thought sexual contact several years ago in Nairobi, Kenya.

“I got so sick and even the doctors did not diagnose me with AIDS, when I was brought to the hospital by my cousins,” she said, adding that she received the diagnosis several years after she lost a baby due to HIV-related complications. 

“Even then, after my cousins received the test results from my doctors, they just told my parents back in Kisii about my HIV situation and did not tell me until complications came up later,” she said. 

Kemuma said talking openly about her situation has helped her cope with the disease and was dumbfounded by claims by some panelists that the rate of new infections had increased because some HIV-positive Kenyans deliberately infected others with the virus. 

The panelists agreed that there have been many cases where HIV-positive Kenyan visitors come to the United States and deliberately infected other unsuspecting Kenyans because the U.S. government does not screen visitors for the disease.

“Some people melt away into other states once they learn of their HIV status, and continue to wreck havoc elsewhere,” said one panelist. 

“Others come from other states and do the same here,” added another. “We also have people who contract HIV in the U.S. and when they realize that they are approaching a critical stage, they disappear back to Kenyan, where they spread the virus to unsuspecting people, who welcome them back to Kenya like returning heroes.”

Kemuma said accepting one’s positive status fosters acceptance and understanding. 

By accepting your situation, “you give the environment around you a chance to accept you in return, and this starts the process of helping you cope,” she said.

“Deliberately infecting others exposes you to the risk of re-infection with a worse strain of HIV, which adds to your sickness and accelerates your death. It is completely ignorant and stupid, the ultimate suicide!”.

The panelists identified several Kenyan community organizations that DPH could channel the resources to curb the spread of the disease. 

They called on Kenyans to learn how to protect themselves from infection and to freely share their experiences.

“You should never have sex with anybody no matter how good they look before you ask for documentary evidence of their HIV status,” they warned. “At worst, use a condom and get tested regularly.” 

As for Hastie her mission is clear. 

“I want to empower others to be advocates and well-educated about the disease,” she said. “I want people to understand how to care for protect themselves and their community and to respect and care for people with HIV/AIDS. I seek to reduce the stigma that isolates many people with HIV and leads people to not get tested and take care of their health.” 

Kenyans and Ugandans in Mass. hit hardest by HIV/AIDS

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Kenyans and Ugandans in Mass. hit hardest by HIV/AIDS

By Pamela  Mulumby
Boston, Mass. – Kenyans and Ugandans in Massachusetts have been affected by HIV/AIDS in large numbers compared with the rest of the African immigrant population in the area, according to a recent state report.

The study, conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health HIV/AIDS Surveillance Program over the last two years found a growth of 250 percent in the number of new HIV cases among people, who identify as Kenyan-born and 600 percent among those of Ugandan heritage.  

“The rate of increase is alarming,” said Richard Wamai, a visiting assistant professor at Northeastern University, who is working with Justice Resource Institute or JRI, a Boston, Mass.,-based not-for-profit to increase HIV/AIDS awareness among Kenyans in Massachusetts area. “The actual number is not a lot, but the rate of increase is a shocker because we don’t know what it will be next month when the next surveillance data comes out.” 

According to the report, a total of 38 Kenyans were HIV-positive in 2006 compared to 134 in 2008. Women accounted for 63 percent of all the new HIV infections last year, the report revealed. 

JRI provides hope and opportunity to children and adults in Massachusetts whose physical, emotional or learning related disability requires innovative and specialized support and treatment. The organization has partnered with the health department to develop an intervention program focusing on Africans of sub-Saharan origin in the state.  

Wamai, who has done extensive research on HIV/AIDS since 2001 and whose works have been published in various journals, including Science and Future HIV/AIDS Therapy and BMC Public Health, said the surveillance system collected the data from people, who sought healthcare services between 2006 and 2008.  

The statistics, he said, could even be more staggering than reported because many Kenyans are not familiar with the concept of preventive medicine and do not seek health services until they are critically ill. 

“It is very true that immigrants often live in the shadow of society so many without legal status would normally avoid health services until when very sick….,” he said. “As the numbers we have are for people seeking health services, there are people out there who do not know they have HIV. The data is not based on active seeking for those infected, so many are not being reached by services they would need.” 

Wamai said the health department system uses a no-name system while gathering information and the results cannot be traced to a single individual. However, it collects basic information such as occupation, literacy skills and country of birth, he said.

Wamai said Massachusetts state government’s new policy on healthcare might have led to increased detection. 

“Massachusetts started a universal mandated health insurance program two years ago, which requires everyone in the state to buy health insurance,” he said, adding that the state imposes a monetary penalty on people who fail to comply with the policy. 

Wamai also said high levels of multiple and concurrent partnerships among Kenyans are key drivers of the epidemic in the state. 

“This is the case in the sub-continent and some of the behaviors from the motherland are practiced here, too,” he said. “The fact that immigrants in general tend to live in the same area with their country people means exposure to the same patterns of behavior from nyumbani (home), albeit here in the US we become more anonymous than back home.” 

Wamai plans to have a focus group meeting with a cross-section of Kenyans in Massachusetts area tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Northeastern University, Nightingale Hall 105-107, Forsyth St., to discuss the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  

He hopes the meeting will attract about 20 Kenyan men and plans to have a similar one with Kenyan women soon.  

“The division among sexes is for methodological reasons, i.e., to achieve maximum value of the discussions unhindered by gender, which is typical within the cultural context,” he said. “Also as there is potential for a large number of people to attend we need to use a simple demographic marker to limit the number.” 

Wamai said the meetings will encourage divergent thinking and discussion of the factors behind the increase in numbers of Kenyans infected with HIV in Massachusetts as well as personal perceptions and behaviors about HIV/AIDS. 

It will also generate ideas and solutions for tackling the epidemic and identify a Kenyan organization that can partner with the health department and JRI in facilitating the implementation, he said. 

“We hope that the discussions will lead to the identification and development of an intervention that targets the Kenyan community with AIDS and increase awareness through education, communication and support ….,” he said.  

Wamai said the project’s long-term goal is to make access to HIV/AIDS information and services in the community routine, foster behavior change and ultimately to curb the rising prevalence.  

“Overall, we hope to support the HIV/AIDS prevention programs in the state to be more successful at reaching hard-to-reach immigrant communities mainly from sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.  

Reach Richard Wamai at r.wamai@neu.edu or (617) 821-0916