Kenya is set to be the first African country to introduce better HIV treatment for people living with the disease that causes AIDS. In partnership with the Kenyan government, UNITAID and the World Health Organization have introduced a generic first-line drug for people living with HIV.
Speaking at a news conference in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, Dr. Peter Kimuu, the head of health policy and planning at the Ministry of Health, said this new first-line drug, known as Dolutegravir (DTG), has few side effects and patients living with HIV are less likely to develop resistance.
“DTG offers better tolerability, fewer adverse drug reactions, fewer drug to drug interactions and higher genetic barrier to resistance,” he said.
One of the key partners in the initiative is UNITAID, a global health initiative working to end Tuberculosis, Malaria and HIV/AIDS epidemic.
UNITAID donated approximately 148,000 bottles of DTG to Kenya’s Health Ministry, which will cover about one percent of the patients living with HIV in the country.
Robert Matiru, the director of operations at UNITAID, told VOA the economic and health benefits of the new line of treatment will go a long way in ensuring key populations get much needed treatment.
“When you bring a product that is cheaper to make, that is of higher efficacy, meaning better treatment outcomes of course you’re going to realize saving and savings are so critical in this day and age because as we know funding is constrained and in some cases declining,” he said.
According to Kenya’s Health Ministry about one-and-a-half million people are living with HIV. The introduction of the new generic first-line drug will be an added arsenal in the fight against the scourge.
Speaking to VOA at the launch of the new drug, Dr. Martin Sirengo, the head of the National Aids & STI control Programme (NASCOP), was upbeat about the new line of treatment. However, he says challenges still exist.
“We have a challenge in the sense that DTG is not available commercially to the scale that we can start everyone on it,” he said. “It’s a new drug so the manufacturing is yet to catch up that’s why we are starting small, number two we have moved the treatment from where we used to combine different pills into a regiment into what we call a fixed dose combination pill, which is basically a tablet containing three drugs. DTG is a single drug so we have to formulate the regiment with other two drugs.”
Living with HIV
Daugthie Ogutu, the executive director at African Sex Workers Alliance, an organization that addresses human and health rights violations against sex workers, has been living with HIV for the last fifteen years.
Ogutu has been on Dolutegravir (DTG) for three months. She says the difference between this new line of treatment, compared to the old one, is the diminished side effects that go along with taking the medication.
“The side effects are significantly less. I haven’t experienced any side effects using it and I think that’s just my experience but you know with treatment it differs from patient to patient but what I can attest to is that the side effects of this one if I compare with the side effects I had with Efavirenz, whereby I had a loss of weight, loss of appetite, I became severely anemic and that became basically my condition,” said Ogutu. “I haven’t been able to experience that with this new drug. So I think it’s a plus that we are now changing to medication that’s being used in developed countries.”
However Ogutu, whose organization African Sex Workers Alliance, has membership in 30 African countries, argues that more focus should be shifted to adherence.
“There’s a challenge and even for those living with HIV, adherence sticking to your drugs and finishing your drugs,” said Ogutu. “There’s a lot more that still needs to be done around providing psycho social support for people living with HIV and I think we are losing it in all this conversation around prevention and I think it should be a slogan in this year’s World Aids Day ‘People living with HIV lives matter.'”
According to the World Health Organization, more than 18 million people globally were receiving antiretroviral treatment. Dolutegravir (DTG) is set to be introduced in two other early adopter countries, Nigeria and Uganda.