In Yaoundé I was looking at the results of one of our projects in the east of Cameroon and the disaggregation between men and women who had received a viral load test (25- 75%) - I was told (by a man) that HIV was a woman’s problem and therefore many more women are infected than men hence the difference - why is that? I ask with one eyebrow raised, there are just as many men as women in Cameroon.
‘Oh, because men here have many wives!’
Or is it that women, and those with children, have better health-seeking behaviors. Cameroon has an HIV prevalence rate of 4.9% It remains the leading cause of mortality in the country (14.8% and ranks 12 globally) Life expectancy is 57.3 years (55.9 for men and 58.6 for women - ranked 173 out 183 countries.)
Jeannette Diwia a young Cameroonian mother found out last year that her husband was infected with HIV. Jeannette pleaded with her him to give up the other women who he lived with, he refused and so she left her husband fearful for her own health. (She should be given PrEP!)
Alone with the girls, she can only barely afford to keep a roof over their heads let alone pay for them to go to school. So they stay at home, help out and play in the yard. Emilienne (6) and Sylvie (4) are young and bright girls but at high risk of exploitation, sexual abuse, and HIV if they don’t get an education – they need to start school soon.
This year, I have already managed to fund through ‘ART’ all my children in Kenya to continue their education in 2017 - Peace (7) and Catherine (13) in Kibera, Molly (13), Phenny (15), Lavine (14), Valentine (14), Sharon (17), Mitchelle (14) and her brother Bob (9), Catherine (17), Marceline (8), and Gloria (7) in Kisumu. All live or where born with HIV, secure schooling has built their confidence, improved their health and will allow them to make better life choices.
Emelienne and Sylvie along with their mother need our help this December. Their lives have been affected by HIV but thankfully they are not infected. Funds I raise this 1 December will go towards their education – it may not be enough, as I have not painted enough, but I can try.
Mercy was born in Homabay on the beautiful shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. Mercy was not born HIV positive but died from HIV when the opportunist cancer called Kaposi Sarcoma took over her body and ultimately took her life at the age of 20.
Mercy's father left the family home when she was young, and she was brought up by her mother. They are a low-income family and her mother struggled to afford to send Mercy to school. When an uncle stepped in and offered to help and pay for Mercy's school fees, her mother did not refuse. True to his word the uncle paid for Mercy to go to school, he took her into his home and 'cared' for her. This care consisted of nightly sexual abuse and it is here that Mercy was infected with HIV. When she started to get sick, the uncle's generosity ceased, and she returned home to her mother.
Mercy's mother took her to the local hospital, and she tested positive for HIV. Unable to accept the diagnosis her mother refused to allow her to start antiretroviral treatment (ART).
Mercy's health suffered over those years and in time she developed Kaposi Sarcoma. By 2015, the cancer was widespread, and her legs were double in size and covered in soars. In light of the now obvious symptoms Mercy started ART, but it was too late. Mercy needed more than just antiretrovirals and her mother had no money to treat cancer and told her the family could do nothing more.
In September, Mercy met Juliana Odindo a young HIV activist born with HIV. Juliana took Mercy to Nairobi using her own funds to see if they could find cancer treatment for this engaging and beautiful young woman. Juliana was able to bring joy and hope to Mercy in the last weeks of her life, they took numerous selfies like young people do and laughed repeatedly. Mercy told Juliana of her plans to continue her studies and one day go to University. They found a bed for Mercy on the cancer ward in Kenyatta hospital, but her prognosis was poor. Mercy's body gave up the fight for life in the early hours of the 7 of October 2015.
I dedicate this series of small paintings to Mercy, they highlight women's beauty but ultimately their vulnerability. Each week, around 4,500 young women are infected with HIV and half of them won't get treatment. Thousands more are denied an education and with it their voice. Unable to negotiate sex let alone safe sex, and by the nature of our female anatomy we are left unprotected, naked if you will.
My fight is to help women access education, my belief is Good Education Leads to Independence, Security, and Empowerment - www.gelise.org - it is also my name.
The funds raised from the sale of my paintings go directly to pay school fees for girls living with HIV in Kenya and to fund support groups for adolescents. Nancy, Peace, Catherine, Molly, Phenny are in school today because, ART and art, make a difference. Each painting tells a woman's story; each one is unique, beautiful, special, and each one needs to be seen and heard.
World AIDS Day 2014
This week 4,600 children will be born HIV positive around the world, without treatment half will die by their second birthday, over 90% of these children live in Africa where access to quality treatment is limited by available resources. Today just one in four of the 3.2 million children living with HIV have access to life saving medicines. We all hope that prevention to mother to child transmission of HIV programs will reduce the number of new infections to zero, however today we are failing children born and living with HIV. Even those children who have treatment it is not easy as Molly aged 11 in Kenya explains ‘I hate medicine, especially when I have to take it on an empty stomach, it makes me feel dizzy.’
Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) is the treatment needed for people living with HIV. Significant strides have been made over the last 15 years in developing new treatments, today around 700,000 children have access to ART most in the South. ART manufacturers have lagged behind when it comes to developing new treatments for children and the reasons are simple; compared to the number of adults that require ART the actual number of children is far less, and these children are dispersed and hard to find, this has led to manufactures less inclined to make medicines for this fragmented market. Infants have been much harder to diagnose too and need a sophisticated diagnostic test, thankfully better point of care diagnosis test are coming on to the market that will make it easier to find and diagnose HIV positive children.
As we know children grow, and as they grow they need different treatment strength to avoid large number of pills to be taken each day - pill burden is one of the main reasons for stopping treatment. Furthermore, many of these children have been exposed to medicines during their mother’s pregnancy (gestation) and now require more complex state of the art treatments. These treatments exist for adults but not for children. Of those that do exist for children they are often not adapted: nasty side effects, fowl taste, high alcohol content, and refrigeration – not so easy when power and refrigerators are not available.
For the children on treatment today it is lifesaving, but not without other costs. HIV positive children have greater health issues keeping them out of school. The disease has often taken their parents and they live with carers who cannot afford to provide for all their needs. Catherine was forced to drop out of school because of unpaid school fees. ‘I have never gone back to my school nor tried to raise the required balance because even if I pick the certificate and I don’t get an opportunity to go to high school then it is all in vain. I however long so much to go back to school and I have trust in God that one day I will.’ she says.
For World Aids Day, I am thankful to the International Health Community for their continued support to end pediatric AIDS and I look forward to better medicines being made available.
I also call on all of you to help the children living with HIV to achieve their dreams, the first step being to keep them in school. I have painted a series of small canvases each with a child playing at school, by purchasing the painting you are buying a school uniform, books and shoes.