By Bedah Mengo
NAIROBI, Jan. 27 (Xinhua) -- Kenya has made tremendous steps in the fight against HIV/ AIDS, but is being burdened by a upsurge of gay in its health drive, according to the East African country's AIDS control council (NACC).
The country has seen its HIV prevalence among adults aged between 15 and 64 decline from 7.2 percent to 5.6 percent. Similarly, awareness of HIV status among infected persons aged between 15 and 64 stands at 47 percent, up from 16 percent.
Kenya has further recorded greater success in access to anti- retroviral treatment, where over 540,000 HIV patients have been put on drugs, up from 250,000 in 2008, the NACC said in a report obtained here on Monday.
However, as Kenya hopes to move towards zero HIV infections from 100,000 annually, the gains made in the sector are being threatened by an upsurge in the number of gay people.
The practice is fast gaining currency in the country with more young people embracing it as it appears cool and trendy.
Gay shops, restaurants and nightclubs are being set up in the East African nation, attracting tens of young women and men into the practice that is largely viewed Western.
The country's cyberspace is now awash with stories and pictures of what happened at various gay peoples' parties in some high-end residential areas.
The frequency of the parties and events targeting gay couples has increased, thanks to the rise in the number of homosexuals.
Members of the gay community are now demanding for recognition and becoming more brazen in their activities.
According to the NACC and the National AIDS and STI Control Program (Nascop), HIV prevalence among gay men in Kenya stands at 18 percent, with a wide variation of between 12 percent and 43 percent across different towns.
The institutions observe that two thirds of male sex workers lead double sexual lives by also being heterosexual.
Nascop estimated there are over 30,000 gay men across Kenya. The bulk of the group is in the capital Nairobi (over 20,000). In Kisumu, Nascop puts the figure at about 5,000. The tourist town of Mombasa has equally high number of gay people.
However, gay and lesbian organizations like Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya puts the number of homosexuals in Kenya at over 100,000.
Nascop noted it is hard to know the exact number of gay people in Kenya due to criminalization of homosexuality and associated risk of stigma and discrimination for disclosing ones sexuality. And that is where the danger in fight against HIV and Aids lies.
"Despite gay peoples' significant influence into the country's overall HIV epidemic, they have low access to HIV prevention and care services due to stigmatization and criminalization of homosexual behavior," noted Nascop in a new survey on men having sex with men (MSM) in Kenya.
The survey conducted in Nairobi and Mombasa in September last year shows that even when MSMs are aware of general HIV prevention interventions, misconceptions about the risk of their own sexual practices precludes them from accessing services.Besides, many HIV service providers are not trained or equipped to meet the specific prevention and treatment needs of MSMs.
Kenya's latest HIV modes of transmission analysis by the World Bank and the NACC underscores the significant challenges gay people raise in country's fight against HIV.
The institutions point out the largest source of new infections are couples in marriages or with regular partners contributing 44 per cent, followed by men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs.
"These categories of individual's form the key populations, which if ignored will erode gains made in the fight against the Aids epidemic. To end the AIDS epidemic, sex workers, men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs cannot remain invisible, they have to be counted," pointed Nascop.
Health Options for Young Men on HIV, AIDS and STIs (Hoymas) Executive Director John Mathenge says stigmatization is the main reason fanning spread of HIV among gay couples.
"Stigma and discrimination is rife in Kenya. It has made many gay people fear to disclose their HIV status and adhere to medication if they are positive. Many MSMs are hiding in closets. Stigma makes MSMs not take health issues important. Their attention is focused more on how to keep their behavior secret," says Mathenge, who is gay, in an interview with Nascop.
Mathenge notes Kenyans need to accept or tolerate gay people if the rising HIV infections in the community can be brought down.
"When stigma is high, most MSMs will do their activities in hiding thus cannot access HIV drugs or services if they are positive. MSMs have a big role to play in reducing HIV. They should be at the forefront of fighting HIV since if they don't take care of themselves, they will die or keep on spreading the virus even among heterosexuals."
Gay sex acts between men or women are illegal under Kenyan laws and carry maximum penalty of 14 years' imprisonment.
The Kenyan Penal Code of 2006, Section 162 reads, "Any person who permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature, is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for 14 years."
"Any person who attempts to commit any of the offences specified in Section 162 is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for seven years," added Section 163.
However, unlike Nigeria and Uganda, which have come out boldly to take tough action on homosexuals, Kenya has been reluctant to punish or enforce the laws as gay community leaders call for their repeal.
Kenya's leading author Binyavanga Wainaina last week declared that he is gay, a move that attracted attention across the world, particularly in the East African nation where opinion was divided.
The effect of the author's action, who now is the most high- profile gay person in Kenya, will be seen in the next weeks.
Critics, however, warn the practice is set to gain more followers among young people due to its acceptance by the elite.