BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

October 12, 2011

‘These drugs work. I will live to see my grandchildren’

John Donnelly, a writer working with the GHTC, will be blogging this week from our trip to visit global health research projects in Kenya. This is his second post from the field.

ELWESERO, Kenya -- In the year 2000, Kenya had just a handful of HIV-positive people taking antiretroviral drugs.

Today, just 11 years later, the country has a half-million people on these drugs, which have saved many from an early death.

While much of the focus of this feat has gone to the extraordinary efforts to expand the access to treatment—the government of Kenya, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria take much of the credit—little acknowledgment has been given to the research that made it possible.

On GHTC’s trip through Kenya this week, the impact from research of years ago is being felt throughout the country. And the promise of today’s research is being eagerly talked about among health workers, as well as mothers and fathers who are hopeful for more lifesaving innovations.

At the Elwesero Men Initiative Support Group on Thursday in western Kenya, about 10 members came to meet us. A few stood to tell stories of nearly dying from AIDS and then recovering rapidly because of the medication.

Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/PATH

Peter Owiti Omotsi, 39, father of five, was a former bus driver in Nairobi. He said he began to feel sick. At first, he said, it felt like malaria, with fevers and chills. “Then I felt I was bewitched,” he said. “My body was wasted.” He dropped from 175 pounds to 125 pounds.

In 2008, he tested positive for HIV. His wife tested negative. His CD4 count was 95; anyone under a 200 count at the time was put on antiretroviral drugs. He started treatment, and he improved dramatically.

“I carry these drugs with me everywhere I go,” he said, holding up a packet of the medicine. “The rest of my life is because of these drugs. My life has changed. I used to drink a lot and smoke. Now I do none of that. I eat nutritious foods. With God and these drugs, my life can be prolonged.”

Another member of the support group, Peter Lumumba, 49, thanked researchers for saving his life.

Lumumba, a father of six, was first diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and started antiretroviral treatment in 2006.

“I am now well,” he said. “People are totally astonished. I helped start this support group, and when we are telling people we are (HIV) positive, they will say, ‘No, you are lying." Without the research that led to this lifesaving medicine, he said, “I would have already died. “

Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/PATH

Later in the day, Omotsi took us to his home on a hillside in a village named Ematsayi. He showed off his garden of spinach, maize, onions, kelp, watermelon, peppers, bananas, papayas, and a local vegetable called managu.

“Everything in the garden has high nutritious value,” he said as he waited for his children to return home from school.

He said if he could talk with the researchers who produced the various antiretroviral medicines, “I would tell them that they can see right here the benefits of what they created. They can see my life. These drugs work. I believe before I die, I will see my grandchildren. Without these drugs, that probably wouldn’t happen. But I have some years to live now. I can at least be proud of my grandchildren.”

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