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Posted by Popular Ombudsman on May 28, 2009


Kenyans and Ugandans in Massachusetts have been affected by HIV/AIDS in large numbers compared with the rest of the African immigrant population in the area, according to a recent state report.

The study, conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health HIV/AIDS Surveillance Program over the last two years found a growth of 250 percent in the number of new HIV cases among people, who identify as Kenyan-born and 600 percent among those of Ugandan heritage.

“The rate of increase is alarming,” said Richard Wamai, a visiting assistant professor at Northeastern University, who is working with Justice Resource Institute or JRI,(website) a Boston, Mass.,-based not-for-profit to increase HIV/AIDS awareness among Kenyans in Massachusetts area.
“The actual number is not a lot, but the rate of increase is a shocker because we don’t know what it will be next month when the next surveillance data comes out.”
According to the report, a total of 38 Kenyans were HIV-positive in 2006 compared to 134 in 2008. Women accounted for 63 percent of all the new HIV infections last year, the report revealed.

JRI provides hope and opportunity to children and adults in Massachusetts whose physical, emotional or learning related disability requires innovative and specialized support and treatment. The organization has partnered with the health department to develop an intervention program focusing on Africans of sub-Saharan origin in the state.

Wamai, who has done extensive research on HIV/AIDS since 2001 and whose works have been published in various journals, including Science and Future HIV/AIDS Therapy and BMC Public Health, said the surveillance system collected the data from people, who sought healthcare services between 2006 and 2008.

The statistics, he said, could even be more staggering than reported because many Kenyans are not familiar with the concept of preventive medicine and do not seek health services until they are critically ill.

“It is very true that immigrants often live in the shadow of society so many without legal status would normally avoid health services until when very sick….,” he said. “As the numbers we have are for people seeking health services, there are people out there who do not know they have HIV. The data is not based on active seeking for those infected, so many are not being reached by services they would need.”

Wamai said the health department system uses a no-name system while gathering information and the results cannot be traced to a single individual. However, it collects basic information such as occupation, literacy skills and country of birth, he said. Wamai said Massachusetts state government’s new policy on healthcare might have led to increased detection.

“Massachusetts started a universal mandated health insurance program two years ago, which requires everyone in the state to buy health insurance,” he said, adding that the state imposes a monetary penalty on people who fail to comply with the policy.

Wamai also said high levels of multiple and concurrent partnerships among Kenyans are key drivers of the epidemic in the state.

“This is the case in the sub-continent and some of the behaviors from the motherland are practiced here, too,” he said. “The fact that immigrants in general tend to live in the same area with their country people means exposure to the same patterns of behavior from nyumbani (home), albeit here in the US we become more anonymous than back home.”

Wamai plans to have a focus group meeting with a cross-section of Kenyans in Massachusetts area tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Northeastern University, Nightingale Hall 105-107, Forsyth St., to discuss the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
He hopes the meeting will attract about 20 Kenyan men and plans to have a similar one with Kenyan women soon.

“The division among sexes is for methodological reasons, i.e., to achieve maximum value of the discussions unhindered by gender, which is typical within the cultural context,” he said. “Also as there is potential for a large number of people to attend we need to use a simple demographic marker to limit the number.”

Wamai said the meetings will encourage divergent thinking and discussion of the factors behind the increase in numbers of Kenyans infected with HIV in Massachusetts as well as personal perceptions and behaviors about HIV/AIDS.

It will also generate ideas and solutions for tackling the epidemic and identify a Kenyan organization that can partner with the health department and JRI in facilitating the implementation, he said.
“We hope that the discussions will lead to the identification and development of an intervention that targets the Kenyan community with AIDS and increase awareness through education, communication and support,” he said.

Wamai said the project’s long-term goal is to make access to HIV/AIDS information and services in the community routine, foster behavior change and ultimately to curb the rising prevalence.
Overall, we hope to support the HIV/AIDS prevention programs in the state to be more successful at reaching hard-to-reach immigrant communities mainly from sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

-So what is unique about East Africans? Is it true that people pretend to be anonymous and take liberties in matters of intimacy? (Editor)

-Send in your comments

Reach Richard Wamai at r.wamai@neu. edu or (617) 821-0916


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