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Kenya Joins HIV DREAMS Project

Pupils play during their lunch break at Mariakani Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya Monday, July 27, 2015. Mr. Obama announced during his visit to Kenya Sunday that Kenya would be part of PEPFAR's DREAMS project to protect adolescent girls from HIV. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

Kenya will be getting new support to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS among adolescent girls. President Obama announced Sunday that Kenya would be included in the DREAMS project. It’s funded by the U.S., the Nike Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Adolescent girls are hard hit by HIV AIDS. It’s estimated seven thousand die every year from the disease.They also account for about 74 percent of new infections among adolescents.

The $210 million DREAMS project falls under PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Dr. Deborah Birx is the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and in charge of PEPFAR.

She said, “DREAMS is a very exciting new program for us where the D stands for determine, the R for resilient, the E for empowered, the A for AIDS-free and the M for mentored and the S for safe. And that acronym – that combination of items – we think is really going to be key to keep young women HIV-free.

Ambassador Birx said the overall rate of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen over the last 10 years. She credited efforts by individual countries, PEPFAR and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. But she said changing demographics on the continent are having an effect on the epidemic.

“Africa also has this exciting, expanding young adult [population]. So, there are 30 percent more young adults now than at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. So, you can see just by the sheer numbers even if you hold the rates of HIV new infections at the same (level), because there’s so many more young adults at risk your actually number of HIV infected goes significantly up,” she said.

And adolescent girls and young women are bearing the brunt of that.

“We know young women in general are two to three to four and some cases 10 times more likely to become HIV infected than young men of the exact same age group. So, this is very much focused on meeting the needs of young women where they are in the communities to address their specific issues that lead to higher HIV risk – and to ensure that they grow up as part of this commitment to an AIDS-free generation,” said Birx.

Kenya will receive $30 million extra in HIV funding from the DREAMS project. Programs are already in place, so they can begin right away.

Dr. Birx attended the recent International AIDS Society Conference on Pathogenesis, Prevention and Treatment in Vancouver, Canada. She said among the scientific studies presented was further proof that the sooner HIV infected people receive antiretrovirals the better.

“If patients start on treatment early, they can have this almost identical lifespan to someone who is HIV negative. So this is extraordinarily exciting, and that’s what happened over the last decade in sub-Saharan Africa. So, we’ve reversed the dying. Now we have to even do a better job on decreasing the number of new infections.”

The PEPFAR chief said preventing new infections among adolescents is cheaper than treating them once they are infected. That, she says, could strain financial resources.

Two of the biggest obstacles to helping girls and young women living with HIV are stigma and discrimination.

“We feel like, overall, across the world we’ve made the least progress in stigma and discrimination. And this has really undermined the abilities of individuals and communities to protect themselves from HIV because people are hiding their sero status. There’s still unrelenting stigma at the community level. So, people living with HIV/AIDS around the world are still forced into the shadows of their community,” said Birx.

She said as a result, fewer people are coming forward to be tested. People are hiding their antiretroviral pills so friends and family won’t learn their HIV status. Birx said it’s critical women are empowered and have the means to protect themselves.

“We know from our gender-based violence studies -- we’ve been supporting, what we call, violence against children surveys in 10 African countries over the last five years – and it’s clear that young women are specifically susceptible to gender-based violence and have a much higher risk of either acquiring HIV through gender-based violence or through other behaviors that occurred due to the gender-based violence that had occurred earlier.”

Ambassador Birx said young women must stand up for themselves. But she also says communities have to “wrap their arms around young women and value them and protect them from the perpetrators of gender-based violence.”