Kenya's ambitious goal of attaining zero HIV infections and deaths by 2030 has encountered some hurdles as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts critical interventions like the provision of life-saving drugs.
Health officials and campaigners said ahead of World Aids Day to be observed on Tuesday that budgetary and staffing constraints linked to the pandemic impacted on testing, treatment and management of HIV/Aids in the country.
Catherine Ngugi, Head, National Aids and STIs Control Programme (NASCOP), said that COVID-19 lockdowns and closure of health facilities disrupted supply of antiretroviral (ARVs) medication for an estimated 1.5 million Kenyan adults and children living with the Aids virus.
"Diversion of funds to cater for COVID-19 response and restricted movement slowed down access to life-saving commodities for the HIV positive individuals in the country," Ngugi said at a recent virtual briefing.
She said the pandemic worsened the vulnerability of people living with Aids amid economic hardships, hunger, malnutrition and stigma.
"Majority of HIV positive Kenyans experience a disproportionate burden of poverty, marginalization, stigma and discrimination and are more affected by severe COVID-19 complications," said Ngugi.
She said that the use of vans to deliver essential medicine combined with an adequate supply of self-testing kits has improved response to HIV and Aids during the pandemic.
Kenya is among five countries that account for the highest-burden of Aids globally with government statistics indicating that youth aged 15 to 24 years account for about 40 percent of new infections in the country.
The Kenya Aids Strategic Framework covering 2014 to 2019 calls for 75 percent reduction in new infections, 25 percent reduction in mortalities and 50 percent increase in domestic financing to combat the disease effectively.
Health experts said that COVID-19 related socio-economic disruptions have exposed vulnerable demographics including adolescents, youth, women and the residents of urban slums to the risk of contracting the Aids virus.
Maureen Inimah, program officer at NASCOP said that the early months of the pandemic witnessed some logistical, personnel and funding hiccups in the country's war against HIV/Aids.
"We cannot put a blind eye on the impact of COVID-19 on HIV prevention and treatment programs but the government has put strong interventions in place to minimize the risk to patients," said Inimah.
She said that a situational analysis conducted by the government in May concluded that empowering health care providers was key to ensure HIV control programs were not interrupted during the pandemic.
"The government is also promoting antiretroviral commodity security supply through implementing differentiated care models such as the use of multi-month subscription models to ensure patients do not miss their medication," said Inimah.
She said that nutritional support for HIV patients has been intensified in order to boost their immunity amid the risk of severe form of COVID-19.
Rosemary Mburu, Executive Director of WACI Health, a pan-African health advocacy group, said that stigma associated with visiting health facilities at the peak of the pandemic coupled with shattered livelihoods, denied HIV positive individuals access to essential medicine and nutritional support.
"There was a perception that health facilities were a COVID-19 hotspot and so HIV patients feared visiting them to pick up their medication," said Mburu.
"Like everyone else in the country, HIV patients' livelihoods were affected by economic contraction due to loss of jobs," she added.
Mburu said that the closure of youth-friendly clinics during the height of the pandemic coupled with a halt on in-person learning undermined the provision of quality care to a demographic that is vulnerable to HIV/Aids.
She clarified that no significant toll of deaths linked to COVID-19 among HIV positive Kenyans has been recorded so far.