Hundreds of activists and people living with HIV took to the street last week (25 April 2012) to urge the government of Kenya in collaboration with the US government to utilize the unspent President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) money for HIV treatment in Kenya.
Around 500 people turned out for the protest, held following the revelation that the US HIV program is holding over $500 million in unspent funds for the Kenyan HIV response. Carrying placards and singing along the Nairobi streets, the demonstrators submitted a petition to the US Ambassador Scott Gration who was in Kenya’s capital to attend a health conference sponsored by the US and Kenyan governments.
The demonstrators are demanding that the unspent PEPFAR funds be used to put more people on HIV treatment and that the Kenyan government fulfils its obligation to increase funding for health and antiretrovirals (ARVs).
“It’s a tragedy that money goes unused while Kenyans with HIV get sick and die because they don’t receive treatment,” said Jacque Wambui of Health GAP Kenya. “The US has billion of shillings unspent, and treasury has not kept its own obligations to annually increase domestic budgets for the drugs we need to stay alive.”
It is estimated that Kenya has 1.5 million people living with HIV. Only 500,000 are already receiving life-sustaining HIV treatment. Treatment coverage is even lower for children, currently standing at a mere 34% of those in need. Kenya faces large gaps in treatment coverage to meet its national target of one million on ARVs by 2015.
Nonetheless, when PEPFAR’s Kenya office submitted its proposed work plan for the coming year, US. officials in Kenya did not plan to use the billions of unspent shillings to increase the pace of HIV treatment next year.
In a letter addressed to the two ministers of health, the Minister for Special Programs, the National AIDS Control Council (NACC) and the National AIDS and STIs Control Program (NASCOP), the activists urged that intervention be rapidly implemented to turn back HIV in Kenya, especially as PEPFAR is on the verge of finalizing its 2012 country operating plan.
It is thought that nearly $1.5 billion in PEPFAR funds remain unspent, of which money allocated to Kenya accounts for the largest share. It is alleged that the Kenyan government is responsible for failure to spend the money as inefficient bureaucracy had led to funds remaining in the US treasury accounts rather than being used to reach its target of helping Kenyan people living with HIV.
PEPFAR is proposing cutting its global fund to Kenya under the 2013 budget, a move being met with concern by activists who say this would put more lives at risk.
“I urge the government to fast track investing the PEPFAR money in its appropriate budget lines so that no child is born with HIV and HIV positive mothers get the necessary treatment, care and support that they require,” said Ms Evelyn Kibuchi KANCO’s TB manager.
MS Kibuchi urged the government to consider allocating part of this fund in tuberculosis programs especially the Gene Expert which would improve TB diagnosis in the long run.
Peter Cherutich, the acting head of NASCOP, said he would be meeting with the US government to negotiate the urgent release of the funds which are crucial in Kenya’s HIV treatment and prevention activities.
The peaceful demonstration was organized by various civil society organizations with the Kenya AIDS NGOs’ Consortium taking a lead role.