The post-election violence in Kenya disrupted many social services, including health care. Among those affected were people being treated for HIV/AIDS.
Ugandan-born Dr. Peter Okaalet was one of the doctors on the ground during the violence that began after the December vote. Dr. Okaalet is senior director of MAP International, which provides health and community services in poor countries. He’s currently in Washington to attend a Global Health Council meeting and spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua.
“It was very disruptive, unexpected, very sudden and took us completely unprepared. I do not work in a clinic on a day-to-day basis. I am the senior director for health and HIV/AIDS policy for MAP International…. So when this took place, it found us unprepared. The staff on the ground had less than $5,000 for relief activities. So we quickly then had to connect with our colleagues in (the US city of) Atlanta, who flew over quickly. And within two or three days we were able to mobilize resources as people started getting displaced from their homes into church buildings, into open grounds. Like in Nairobi, Jamhuri Park, which I visited personally. So we had to be alert almost on a 24-hour basis because it’s something that you couldn’t plan for five days ahead. So we just had to react and respond,” he says.
During the violence, it was difficult or impossible to travel. Many roads were blocked by those involved in the fighting. Dr. Okaalet says, “Some of our staff had traveled from Nairobi into their villages away from the city. So they could not return into the city…. I have heard stories of one or two of them spending two or three nights in the bush because the area where they came from, because of tribal differences and so on, was quite insecure…. But it came to a point where we were not even able to locate some of them. So there was a bit of fear, despair, a little bit of anger as relatives were being killed.”
As for those with HIV/AIDS, he says, “(They) could not access the VCT centers, the voluntary counseling and testing centers. That also was a very big challenge. Up to about…22,000 people stand the risk of developing full-blown AIDS because of the disruption of the services.” He says HIV/AIDS patients need to be on a constant regimen of medication to keep the virus at bay. If too much time passes without treatment, the virus can reproduce to very high levels, wiping out the immune system.
Dr. Okaalet says a number of lessons were learned during the turmoil. One: “As you know, Kenya has been an island of peace in a region that has been turbulent for years. You were preparing to respond to problems in Darfur in the Sudan and so on, not thinking anything like this could happen in Kenya. So I think it’s a wake-up call for all of us to be prepared. Two: we could not provide everything. We now had to reach out to other partners. Not everybody can do everything…. And then lastly, I think without peace there can be no health,” he says.