Addressing the Needs of HIV-Positive Adolescents
“There is an entire generation of adolescents who were born HIV-positive, their needs were not being addressed,” says Truphena Achieng.
Truphena is a mother of two HIV-positive adolescents, living in Homabay County, Kenya – home to the highest HIV prevalence in the country, at 25.7%. Truphena, witnessing the effects of bias and stigma faced by HIV-positive individuals in her community, feared telling her children that they, too, were HIV-positive.
“Every day my children would ask me why they were taking drugs daily, and when they will stop taking these drugs. I am a widow, I did not have the courage to tell them that they were HIV-positive and I did not have anyone to consult,” she says.
Parents such as Truphena often go without the support they need to talk to their children. Children, such as Truphena’s, often go without the support they need to ensure their health and dignity. Kenya has little-to-no data on how HIV is even affecting adolescents. The most recent and comprehensive survey on HIV/AIDS in the country, contains no data on adolescents.
“Without specific data on adolescents, it [is] difficult to develop interventions that address the unique challenges facing this age group, particularly in Homabay where a quarter of the population is living with HIV,” said Dr Koteng.
A heavy disease risk is likely burdening this population. So too, is social stigma and discrimination. According to one Kenyan Household Survey, stigma toward adolescents and teenagers living with HIV is a major challenge: 55% of adolescents interviewed indicated that they preferred that the HIV status of their family members be kept secret.
Adolescents’ Growing Risks
There are many children who contracted HIV as infants, through mother-to-child transmission, growing into adolescents. There are also many adolescents growing into sexual relations with peers and contracting the infection. Global health experts are concerned that the African culture is significantly conservative where sexuality is concerned, and as a result, sexually-active teens do not always disclose that they are having sex, nor are they regularly tested for HIV or accessing necessary barrier methods to prevent infection.
According to Plan International Kenya who carried out a study among HIV-positive adolescents, “Most HIV-positive adolescents are or intend to be involved in sexual relationships. More than four-fifths have been in a sexual relationship.” This insight gives way to new fears: are we going to see a dramatic increase in risk of infection as a child matures into adolescence because of issues with disclosure and privacy around sex?
The complexities and fears around adolescent health as sexuality develops and infection risks grow, is not new to the Kwamo Dispensary, a small health facility supported by EGPAF, in Homabay County. The dispensary is actively addressing the needs of many, in all age groups.
Kwamo is where Truphena turned when experiencing her own fears around HIV disclosure to her children. Through talking with health staff she realized how important it is to disclose to one’s child. Children with knowledge of their status are more likely to stay on treatment, without interruption – more likely to live long, healthy lives. In her conversations with staff, Truphena says that she gained courage to talk to her children about their status.
The facility also developed a peer-to-peer support group where her children could come and receive support from other teens. Her children could be encouraged and supported by this site to ensure their own health, as well. Truphena’s 12 year old daughter, Silvia Anyango, soon after realizing her status, was confused and felt alone. She even went so far as to refuse to take her drugs. “I was tired of taking the drugs.” She became quite sick and was enrolled in the support group as soon as possible. ”Since joining the support group, I realized that I am not the only one. We are all adolescents and we support each other.”