Impoverished Kenyans living with HIV/AIDs are sometimes selling their antiretroviral drugs to buy food for themselves and their families. Medical professionals believe there has been a slight growth in the trend, saying that people are simply trying to survive.
Fifty-year-old Sangele Kule lives in the Nairobi slum of Korogocho with her seven children and two grandchildren. She has been HIV positive for 16 years and lost her husband in the 2007 Kenyan post-election violence. As her household’s primary provider, Kule started selling her antiretroviral drugs, known as ARVs, to make money to buy food for her children. In a good month, she says she can make about $6.
“I started selling them in 2007 because of hunger, because of poverty," she said. "I didn’t have enough money so I started selling it because I found some people feared going to the clinic so they asked me if I could sell for them to make food for my children.”
Kule says that this fear of going to the clinic is why the poor can sell their ARVs to middle and upper class people.
“He or she doesn’t want somebody, a neighbor, to know that she’s positive or he’s living positive. So he buys drugs from us,” she said.
Anthony Kitema Katingi, a clinical officer from Nairobi specializing in HIV/AIDS, says he has seen a slight increase in the number of people from the slums who are selling their ARVs. And he says they are not doing it for extra spending money - they simply need food.
“It’s growing, it’s growing… I can’t call it a business because I don’t think you can make money out of ARVs. Because even when they are selling it, the money’s for food. Because the majority of them, they are poor people,” he said.
Dr. Phenny Kachumbo is the medical coordinator of a faith-based dispensary based in the Nairobi slum of Deep Sea. She says that ARVs are very strong drugs and proper nutrition is essential for their efficacy.
“Now, food is one of the biggest concerns we have," she said. "So you see, you’ll get a patient coming to tell you, ‘so doctor, you want me to take these drugs but I don’t have anything? What do you want me to do?’ So it becomes really a challenge because am I supposed to be offering treatment at the same time I’m supposed to be offering food? And it’s really a challenge because you really don’t want to encourage that culture of free food because I can’t afford it. I don’t really see how the government can sustain it by just providing free food.”
And because there is no national database, Katingi says that people can get ARVs from government, church, community, and non-governmental organizations, take the necessary number of pills for themselves and then sell the others.
“They go every month for a refill at four different centers. So they have a supply of four months. So they can dispose for three months and remain for one month. Then, after that, they still go back and do the same thing,” he said.
But Katingi refuses to pass judgment on their choices, because he says they’re doing it for survival. “If it’s a survival mechanism, then it supersedes the morality issues,” he adds.
According to a 2011 report by Kenya’s National AIDS and STI Control Program, the national HIV prevalence is 7.1 percent among Kenyan adults.