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UN envoy sees 'startling change' in political will to fight HIV/AIDS in Kenya

UN envoy sees 'startling change' in political will to fight HIV/AIDS in Kenya

Stephen Lewis
A United Nations envoy today said he has a greater degree of hope and optimism about Kenya's ability to turn around the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS pandemic given the "startlingly changed atmosphere" created by the new government's political commitment to break the scourge's grip on the country.

"It is hard to describe the sense of change from the previous administration: suffice to say, where HIV/AIDS is concerned, the change is night and day," Stephen Lewis, Secretary-General Kofi Annan's envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, said during a press briefing at the UN Headquarters in New York. "The President has appointed an HIV/AIDS Cabinet of nine members, which he personally chairs. He's providing very open and public leadership on the issues of AIDS, and demands the same of his cabinet colleagues."

Mr. Lewis was briefing reporters on his recent trip to Kenya, during which he met at length with the new President, Mwai Kibaki, in what he called "one of the most refreshing meetings I've attended with a Head of State." The UN envoy also met with the Ministers of Health, Education and Information, the UN country team and various representatives of civil society organizations to discuss various aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Mr. Lewis said the full force of the new Government has been felt particularly in the area of education, where many children orphaned by AIDS are often forced to drop out of school due to lack of funding. The Government abolished the payment of primary school fees and, "an extraordinary thing happened: when school reconvened in January, one million new children poured into the educational system within one week - an increase of over 20 per cent," he stated.

Discussions with the Health Ministry also illustrated the Government's determination to break the grip of the pandemic on Kenyan society, Mr. Lewis said. In addition, the Minister of Information is about to take a very unusual step by directing that a certain limited percentage of air time, on all radio and television stations, be devoted to programming on AIDS prevention.

While all of these intentions are truly exciting and a dramatic departure from previous administration, Mr. Lewis pointed out, the need out weighed available resources and Kenya needed assistance to effectively tackle the epidemic.

"It's hard to convey the startlingly changed atmosphere in the political precincts of Nairobi and by extension, in the population overall. If ever there was a time to turn the pandemic around in Kenya, that time is now," Mr. Lewis reiterated. "But they'll need lots of help. They must get it."