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Too young to know HIV status

NAIROBI, May 9 – Knowing your HIV status as an adult is difficult, but for a child it’s even harder.

Many questions that go through their minds usually end up unanswered. They can’t understand why they have to be put on a rigorous medication regime.
One such a child is Alex, a 10 -year-old boy living with HIV. He learnt of his status two years ago.

I met him at a children’s fun day in Nairobi.  He and other HIV positive children had gathered here to entertain themselves through sports, story-telling, song, dance and poetry. They were seeking to pass a message that they too are no different from other children.

“I didn’t know what it meant to me when I was told I have HIV. I thought it was like a common cold but I learnt later that it was more serious when I was told that I would be on drugs for the rest of my life,” he explains.

Alex is a handsome young boy, healthy looking and jovial.

He speaks to me confidently and even sets it straight before the interview that he would not answer any question that he felt would expose him to stigma, a clear indication that discrimination among HIV positive people is still rife in the country.

He tells me he has been on ARV’s for two years now and also attends support groups at the Mbagathi District Hospital in Nairobi.

“I attend every Saturday where I get to relate with other children who are HIV positive. Sometimes we engage in activities like camping and go on trips which make me happy,” Alex explains.

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“The support group has assisted me to know the importance of taking my medicine and it has helped me live positively with the virus,” he adds.

Alex has big dreams too.

“I want to be a doctor when I grow up. I was position two in my class with 419 marks (out of the possible 500) and I want to let the world know that having HIV does not prevent one from performing well in school,” the young boy asserts.

Alex was born with the virus. He says no one in the school is aware that he is HIV positive since he is always healthy.

The invited guests at the fun day are treated to an emotional period when the children recite HIV related poems, that makes most of us break into tears.

One of the children could not even complete her recital due to the emotional pain.

She burst out into tears as soon as she began her poem titled Ukimwi ni Balaa, which translates to AIDS is a disaster.

22 year old Mary is also HIV positive. Mary learnt of her status five years ago when she was in form two.

“I was in shock,” she says. “I asked myself how it happened since I knew I was innocent. I even asked the doctor whether he was sure of what he was saying.”

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Mary says the doctor told her it was possible she was born with the virus since she was sickly from when she was young.

“But let me just tell you, for one to accept it’s very hard. I even went to a point of asking my dad who was responsible for this but he told me (Mary, don’t ask that question again for it’s only God who knows),” she narrates.

Mary has been on ARV treatment since then. She also attends support groups every first Saturday of the month at the Mbagathi District Hospital.

“At times I had to sneak out of class to hide myself when taking the medicine,” Mary says.

“My fellow students went to a point where they broke into my metal box, took my drugs and noted down the prescription and then asked the matron what kind of drugs they were.”

Mary was suspended from school and told to come back with her parents when the matron got to know the prescription was hers, to which she says “it hurt.”

Angela Mutunga, a counsellor, says though some relatives find it hard to accept and take care of children who are HIV positive, it is important for them to be supportive of these children.

“People sometimes imagine that children don’t have feelings but they do have feelings, they have emotions, they have fears and so many unanswered questions,” Mutunga says.

It is estimated that HIV related ailments kill over 1,000 children everyday and claim roughly 500,000 young lives every year.

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“It is important to approach it through the family. If you know the mother’s and father’s status, find out whether they have children and whether they are aware of their children’s status so that they are not left to wake up one morning very sick,” Mutunga advises.

She says it is also important for the society to network and refer the sick children to the right facilities for treatment.

“I am sure these children can be helped and should not die of HIV related illnesses.”

Mbagathi District Hospital is currently taking care of 450 HIV positive children who access their ARV medication there besides attending support groups.

Mary, now a beautician, says only prayers got her through the discrimination and hatred she experienced. She is still confident that scientists are working round the clock to get a cure for the HIV.

(The names Alex and Mary are not real names of the quoted children)

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