Kenyan Student’s Suicide Reveals Gaps in HIV Education

Posted on 28 May 2008. Filed under: Governance, MDGs, Public Health |


Photo: Kristy Siegfried/IRIN
Only nine out of 16 HIV testing centres in North Eastern Province are functioning

GARISSA, 28 May 2008 (PlusNews) – The recent suicide of a secondary school student in Kenya’s North Eastern Province after he was diagnosed as HIV positive has highlighted the shortage of qualified counsellors in the region, and the urgent need to address the misinformation and stigma attached to the virus.

“Serious awareness-raising and counselling of students on HIV is non-existent in schools here; the little information they have is either gathered from public meetings, dramas or media,” said one of the boy’s teachers, who preferred not to be named.

In April the student had reportedly visited a voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) centre, manned solely by a junior laboratory technician, and received his results without any counselling. Shortly afterwards, he ingested a lethal pesticide and died.

“The results sheet was a death sentence passed to him; he was not counselled or offered words of hope, hence his belief that testing positive was the end of life,” said the teacher. “It is possible he also feared isolation by the community.”

Responses by the student’s peers revealed attitudes to HIV that may have contributed to the decision to take his life: “I sympathise with his family but not the deceased,” said one. “He died because he committed a serious sin [sex outside of marriage] and made the second worst sin in committing suicide. He has a direct ticket to hell.”

''He died because he committed a serious sin…He has a direct ticket to hell''

Dr Hassan Adan, the provincial HIV programme coordinator, said stigma and a shortage of adequate counsellors were hurting efforts to control HIV in the province, which was the only one in the country to record a rise in HIV prevalence in 2007.

Although HIV infection rates are still among the lowest in the country – 1.4 percent compared to the national average of 5.1 percent, according to Kenya’s National AIDS Control Council – the region also has the lowest uptake of condoms by its population of more than one million.

“We have 16 VCT centres in North Eastern Province, but only nine are working; we have requested the government to help us hire counsellors and increase the facilities,” Adan told IRIN/PlusNews.

The government, in collaboration with local non-governmental organisations, has started providing special vehicles equipped to offer HIV testing and counselling services in rural communities. At present such services are only available at district and sub-district hospitals.

Local health workers said expanding the testing service would not necessarily persuade more people to be tested. The combination of an extremely conservative culture with the country’s lowest literacy rate – just eight percent – has made HIV education in North Eastern Province extremely difficult.

“A majority of locals still believe that HIV only affects those who are cursed; [that it is] a form of punishment and an end of life for any person who has tested positive,” said a nurse and part-time counsellor at Bulla Iftin VCT centre in the provincial capital, Garissa.

The nurse, who preferred not to be named, said VCT centres were still shunned by most of Garissa’s residents because they feared being branded as immoral if they were seen visiting them.

“We have very few VCT centres in North Eastern [Province] but we never experience any congestion,” he said. “Most of the time we fail to get even a single person to counsel or test in a whole week.”

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