Inspector soldiers on against HIV/AIDS

The People | March 17, 2014

Ali Amri Mlalanaro, 51, was living his dream as a constable with the Kenya Police Force in 1984, life held great promise for the young and ambitious police officer. Six years later, already a husband and father of six, a job transfer from Lamu in Coast province would begin a series of events that would change life as he knew it.

“My wife refused to join me in Mombasa. Her father was sick and she refused to leave him. I divorced her and begun a relationship with another woman and later married her,” Mlalanaro explains. Mlalanaro, now a police Inspector at Island Division Majengo in Mombasa County began suspecting that he may be infected with HIV in 1994, but did not confirm his status until 1998.

During this time, statistics by the National Aids Control Programme showed that from a single reported Aids case in 1984, HIV adult prevalence had risen to 13.5 per cent in 1999. The president at the time declared HIV/Aids national disaster. This was before the Industrial Property Act 2001 and generic drugs could be imported. “ARVs were only for the rich,” he explains.

Over the years, adult HIV prevalence has dropped significantly from 13.5 percent in 1999 to 7.2 percent in 2007. Now, the prevalence is 5.6 per cent, according to the most Kenya Aids Indicator Survey disseminated by Kenya National Aids and STDs Control Program (NASCOP) in 2013 through the ministry of health. Dr John Ong’ech, HIV/Aids expert, says the fight against HIV/Aids is far from over.

According to Dr Ong’ech, Assistant Director at Kenyatta National Hospital: “Our biggest challenge in responding effectively to adult HIV is the fact that there are many Kenyans who are still unaware of their status. There are many who are unknowingly living with HIV/Aids.” Inspector Mlalanaro concurs: “Before I even suspected I was HIV positive, I had been infected for about four years, my second wife who died of HIV had lived for many years without knowing her status, my current wife was also unknowingly living with HIV.”

Inspired by these incidences, Mlalanaro begun a lifelong campaign to encourage people to know their status. Armed more with confidence than any significant knowledge of HIV prevention, care and treatment, he begun sensitising the community around him, as well as his colleagues on HIV/Aids. “But in 2007, my health was failing and so was my resolve. I began drinking and smoking cigarettes. Soon after I contracted pneumonia, my CD4 count was very low, below 200,” he recounts.

“At the time, it was a national policy that due to the limited availability of ARV drugs, a person living with HIV could only be put on treatment if their CD4 count was below 200,” he says. Having been put on drugs in 2007 Mlalanaro began feeling like his old self again “but I begun to question the effectiveness of the work my wife and I were doing.

We were so overwhelmed and we needed help to achieve greater impact,” he says. In 2010 Mlalanaro received an invitation to attend a training workshop on HIV/Aids “we were about 30 officers in uniform drawn from the National Youth Service, Kenya police service and the Kenya Wildlife Service, all of us were HIV positive.” This was Mlalanaro’s first encounter with Elizabeth Glaser Paediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF).

“EGPAF was rolling out a project called The Aids Response in Forces in Uniform (ARIFU) . A much needed intervention because from the training, we formed the first group of officers living with HIV, the soldiers of hope. This was a major boost in the fight to concur the disease,” Malanaro explains. But even within the group, there are those who lost the fight and succumbed. “One of us died in 2012, he struggled greatly with HIV” he says.

During this time, stigma and discrimination remained his greatest obstacle “I declared my status when people infected with HIV were not expected to live beyond a few months. Stigma and discrimination was very high and those who died from HIV and Aids were buried in a plastic bag and the body sprayed with chemicals, but even in late 2010, not much had changed.”

His decision to speak publicly about his HIV status was a double edged sword “I wanted to deal with self stigmatisation. I had declared my status and people had nothing to speculate about. By speaking publicly, I also helped reduce stigma. I spoke in a major meeting in 2000 and said that I had been living with HIV for close to a decade, people begun realising that HIV is not a death sentence.”

In the first year when response programme for officers was rolled out, only slightly over 10,000 officers were tested nationally. But the next four years, more officers were willing to be tested. The highest number, 50,000, tested last year. Mlalanaro says that the mistake that many people make is “to live under the assumption that they are HIV negative just because they feel healthy. Most of the people I have met and have tested HIV positive were not sickly. This is the message I wanted to communicate. Knowing your status is the only way to be sure.” - By JOYCE CHIMBI