Aids blight spreads to Kenyan students

December 10, 1999

NAIROBI. Aids researchers in Kenya say university students are among the high-risk groups, which include teenage girls, long-distance truck drivers, commercial sex workers, the military and the police.

There is strong evidence that infection among university students could continue to rise before it peaks.

Studies reveal that in urban areas about 30 per cent of teenage girls aged 15-19 are HIV positive. The government has ordered schools to start teaching sex education despite protests from religious organisations.

Director of medical services Richard Muga said the country was losing about Pounds 2.25 million per day paying for the costs of Aids. He said that ignorance of risks involved in wife inheritance (where a man inherits the wife of a dead relative), peer pressure, poverty and wrong attitudes are factors that have put many young people at risk of contracting the HIV virus.

At the University of Nairobi, one or two students are dying every week. According to vice-chancellor Francis Gichaga, many students are HIV positive when they join the university.

"We are worried that Aids may eventually affect our university workforce," said Professor Gichaga. The university has set up an awareness campaign to control the rapid spread of HIV.

The high rate of HIV infection in universities is being linked to the incidence of Aids-related illnesses among those aged between 19 and 24. Students from western Kenya along Lake Victoria are particularly likely to be infected and develop Aids. Thirty per cent of those aged between 15 to 24 have Aids-related illnesses.

Also at risk are girls who marry men whose wives might have died of Aids. University officials say poverty is a major determinant for HIV infection among female students whose families cannot meet the cost-sharing regime in Kenya's higher education.

"Some female students with funding problems at the University of Nairobi have been having relationships with rich men, especially in return for assistance to pay tuition fees," said a counsellor at the dean of students' office.

However, university health officials estimate that for every ten female students with HIV, there are 14 to 15 male students who are infected with the virus.

Figures from the local World Health Organisation reference centre on HIV/Aids indicate that 30 per cent of Kenyan students seeking admission to foreign universities are infected.

According to Maritim Songok, head of the HIV/Aids laboratory at Kenya Medical Research Institute, the prevalence rate, which was 25 per cent in 1995, is still rising.

So far the United Nations Children's Fund has offered to supply education materials to public universities.

Appealing for more assistance, Professor Gichaga said it was necessary to create awareness because prevention remained the best alternative towards control of HIV infection.

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