NAIROBI, KENYA - Thousands of HIV-negative Kenyans will for the first time be placed on daily antiretroviral medication, or ARVs, in a bid to avert new infections.
The new program seeks to lower the country's HIV transmission rate to individuals who face a substantial risk of contracting HIV, such as rape victims and HIV-negative drug users.
The head of the National AIDS and STI Control Program (NASCOP), Martin Sirengo, said the measure will be rolled out in April and will involve the use of Pre-exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP.
“We are introducing PrEP to a selected population, not to everyone, and this selected population includes, for instance, HIV-negative partners in a discordant relationship, where the other partner is positive,” Sirengo said. “Anyone who comes and gives a history of repeated sexually transmitted infections, anyone who comes for repeated PrEP medication, that tells us they are at risk of getting HIV," will be eligible, he said. "We are also recommending PrEP to anyone who has multiple sexual partners.”
Drugs are very effective
If taken daily, the drugs have a success rate of preventing HIV infection of more than 96 percent, according to pilot studies conducted in Kenya by NASCOP and the Partners Prevention Program between 2013 and 2016.
“Only four out of the over 1,500 [tested] got infected [with] HIV, which means prep is highly effective to the tune of over 96 percent or more,” Sirengo said. “And, when we look at the four that got positive, we actually realized they were not adhering to the treatment.”
Kenya becomes the second country in Africa, after South Africa, to roll out PrEP. However, it is widely used in developed countries.
Some aren't so sure
Some are still skeptical about the drug.
Esther Atieno is a commercial sex worker. She says she prefers to use alternative methods.
“I don't think many people will use it,” Atieno said. “There is no one who likes to take medication every day. The condom is the best protective method because it is not something you use every day like the daily pill.”
Drugs free in public facilities
Sirengo agrees that users should combine PrEP with other preventive interventions, like use of condoms and male circumcision to further reduce the risk of acquiring HIV.
The cost of the treatment is between $500 to $800 a person per year, but it is expected NGOs and other partners will subsidize the treatment.
The drugs will be free in all public facilities, but those who seek treatment in private health facilities will have to purchase the drugs for $60-$100 per annual treatment.
Sirengo says trained health workers will assess who qualifies for this treatment.
It is anticipated that the drug will avert many new infections in Kenya, reported to have the fourth-highest HIV infection in the world. An estimated 1.5 million Kenyans are said to be living with the virus.