Empty antiretroviral drug bottles in her house
Empty antiretroviral medicine bottles in Mary's house. She has been going without drugs following the standoff between Kenya and USAID, an organization that donates ARVs to Kenya. | David Bett

HIV medicine shortage threatens thousands in Kenya

Not taking antiretroviral medicines means I have given HIV the chance to multiply the deadly virus in my body and further weaken my immunity.

Woman in shadow
First-person source
Mary Kariuki is a Kenyan citizen living with HIV. She has been living with the virus for close to a decade and she relies on ARVs to keep going.

NAIROBI, KENYA – I am staring at death. That is the definition of my situation since my life support — antiretroviral drugs — are not available in the country. 

This shortage has created a risk so severe that death is the only outcome.

People taking antiretroviral drugs should never skip a day. Therefore, there should be no measure on how long people living with the virus have missed medications.

People living with HIV in the country, including myself, have skipped drugs, and that is dangerous enough. The scarcity has pushed me to start sharing antiretroviral tabs with my son, living with HIV. That is not a safe practice either. We should not be sharing drugs. 

Drug-sharing is happening in many households, but nobody will tell you because people living with HIV take a little longer to open up about their private lives.

It has been a challenge for me to manage a good diet amidst a lack of life support pills, especially with the tough economy brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

I have to be cautious to protect myself against anything that can harm my health right now. Avoiding the virus and other threats is a matter of life and death. 

Consequences for skipping pills

One sure thing I know about my current state is that my immunity is weakening day by day. This weakening leaves me vulnerable to any opportunistic illness.

It might become impossible to help me if an opportunistic disease strikes because I will automatically die. I fear for my life right now because I do not even know when the drugs will be available to Kenyans living with HIV.

You can imagine a population of over 1.5 million people is staring at death right now.

The fact that I am not taking antiretroviral medicines means that I have given HIV an opportunity to multiply the deadly virus in my body and further weaken my immunity.

It pains me that it is not my choice to expose my life to such a situation. The government should act promptly to salvage our lives as Kenyans living with HIV.

The delayed supply of ARVs exposed my life and those of more than 1.5 million Kenyans living with the virus to danger.

Everyone on ARVs, irrespective of their viral stage, is in danger right now.

A woman holds empty bottles of antiretroviral drugs
Mary displays some empty bottles in her house. She has been going without drugs following the standoff between Kenya and USAID, an organization that donates ARVs to Kenya. | David Bett

My appeal to the government of Kenya

ARVs are not just common drugs like antifungal drugs and painkillers; they are life support drugs that when a user skips, death is the only thing that awaits.

I ask the government of Kenya to move with speed and resolve the standoff between Kenya and USAID to let drugs reach us.

I may have come out to speak about the agony of living without ARVs when I should be using them daily, but Kenyans live with HIV who fear talking about it.

They are dying in silence.

To our government, whatever the issue between Kenya and USAID is, please sort it out urgently before it is too late for people like me.

A standoff between Kenya and USAID has left Kenyans living with HIV in a sorry state as they cannot access drugs. The government however says it is working around the clock to resolve issues surrounding the supply of ARVs into the country.

Kenya has approximately 1.5 million people living with HIV. This puts Kenya on top of the list of East Africa region as this is the largest number among member countries. In Kenya, people living with HIV squarely rely on USAID for donations of ARV drugs. This is because ARV drugs are expensive if one was to pay for them. 

One requires $120 annually to secure ARVs. This is practically impossible for an ordinary Kenyan living with HIV/AIDS. The cost is overwhelming and therefore relying on donated drugs is the only option. 

David Bett is a multitalented investigative journalist based in Kenya. He has amassed experience in reporting on crime and unearthing untold stories, penning down jaw-dropping human interest stories and security issues in the horn of Africa.