New leadership could turn epidemic around - Lewis

Since the election of a new president in Kenya, there has been a dramatic change in the level of political debate over HIV/AIDS which could have a positive impact on the epidemic, Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said.

The level of commitment demonstrated by the new leadership was cause for a "greater degree of hope and optimism than I've felt for months," Lewis said during a press briefing, after a recent trip to Kenya.

With recent developments in the implementation of HIV/AIDS policies and programmes by the government, there was "no reason" why Kenya could not become the "next Uganda", he noted. Uganda is widely regarded as having successfully lowered the rates of HIV/AIDS infections and was the first African country to establish a national response to HIV/AIDS.

The Kenyan government is planning to provide low cost or free antiretroviral (ARV) treatment to up to 20 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in the country by 2005.

The health ministry announced last week that they would start the ARV treatments in 15 public health facilities around the country, starting next year.

According to Lewis, the government was examining legislation to introduce a health insurance plan, which would in part cover the treatment of opportunistic infections and full-blown AIDS.

He called for African governments to adopt the government-led initiative to abolish fees for primary school, as this had "stunning" implications for the estimated 1.2 million Kenyan children orphaned by the disease.

But grassroots organisations have yet to see these changes. "For us on the ground, it will take some time before we feel the difference...because the government is still in its infancy," Dr Cris Ouma, the national HIV/AIDS coordinator for the British charity ActionAid, told PlusNews.

The policy to abolish primary school fees was a "complex issue" as it would still be difficult to enrol children affected by HIV/AIDS.

"The girl child is primarily responsible for caring for HIV-positive family members, so she will lose out on this free education. Boys will be forced to drop out and become breadwinners. It will be some time before there is any change in the situation," Ouma warned.

The funding of HIV/AIDS programmes had, however, been "stepped up several notches" by the government, Ouma said. The mood in the country was "upbeat and positive" following the government's recent announcements.

AIDS NGOs now found "more space to work and lobby" for their programmes, as government stakeholders were now more open and willing to discuss ways of confronting the epidemic.

"We are certainly optimistic, but we all have the responsibility to carry this through," Ouma said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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