BOMET, 25 February 2013 (PlusNews) - A small team of HIV/AIDS activists is trailing Kenyan presidential candidates as they crisscross the country, pressing them to increase their commitment to the care and treatment of people living with HIV.
With just days until what is likely to be a close election, the activists are saying they can help deliver votes from many of the more than one million Kenyans living with HIV to the candidates most willing to address their concerns.
The 17 activists, who come from a range of civil society organizations, are calling on each of the eight presidential candidates to sign a manifesto guaranteeing a scale-up of HIV-testing, the elimination of mother-to-child transmission, and accelerated rollout of antiretroviral therapy (ART). After publishing their demands, the activists hit the campaign trail; they are prepared to dog candidates and disrupt rallies to secure those commitments.
"Many leaders, they do forget about us," said Loise Wanjiku, an HIV-positive woman from southwestern Kenya, where she says drug shortages are inhibiting the treatment of opportunistic infections associated with HIV.
Wanjiku was one of 17 activists who showed up at a recent rally by Prime Minister Raila Odinga - one of the frontrunners in the presidential race - in Bomet, Rift Valley Province, an hour and a half from her home.
"They've been attending campaign rallies from all the candidates to raise their voices, to hold up signs, to chant… and to try to urge the candidates to do more and say more about HIV, based on the demands in the manifesto," said Paul Davis, the director of global campaigns for Health Global Access Project (Health GAP), a US-based activist group.
Kenya faces a funding gap for its HIV programmes estimated at $1.67 billion. And although the country has steadily increased the number of people on ART, more than 100,000 HIV-positive Kenyans who need the drugs have no access to them.
Yet the presidential candidates have largely been silent on the issue.
In the country's first-ever presidential debate, hosted in early February, HIV/AIDS was not mentioned until the last question, when candidates addressed it as part of the broader need for improvements in health care. In the two leading candidates’ coalition manifestos, the proposed response to HIV is even less detailed: Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta's Jubilee Coalition mentions HIV/AIDS patients as part of the plan for universal healthcare. Prime Minister Raila Odinga's Coalition for Reforms and Democracy does not mention HIV at all.
The rally in Bomet was the first major success of the AIDS activists' campaign. Positioning themselves around the speaker's platform with a range of hand-drawn posters, the organizers threatened to interrupt Odinga if he did not mention HIV within the first half of his speech. He responded by promising free ART to all HIV-positive Kenyans and pledging to increase the health budget to 15 percent, as African leaders promised in the Abuja Declaration in 2001.
HIV-positive people are "part of our society", Odinga told the massive crowd, adding that "we all deserve to be healthy". Odinga's team said he did not feel pressured by the activists, but welcomed the opportunity to interact with them.
The activists staged a similar demonstration at a Kenyatta campaign two days later in Kisii, but the candidate failed to address them. They are hopeful, however, that he will eventually respond to their demands based on his record - when Kenyatta was finance minister in 2009, he signed an agreement to increase overall health funding by 40 percent by 2013.
A Kenyatta campaign spokesperson said the team is putting together a detailed HIV/AIDS response plan, which they will release before the election.
At a rally earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi, another presidential candidate, promised more funding for the health sector, saying the "nation needs healthy people to run it".
Health GAP's Davis said Odinga's promise has potential implications for the campaign. "Now the ball is in the court of the Jubilee candidates… to see if they're going to step up or run the risk of losing [the votes of] 1.6 million people with HIV, their families, their friends, their loved ones, their co-workers."
He said HIV patients were prepared to transcend the ethnic affiliations that often determine voting patterns in Kenya and vote instead for the candidate most likely to respond to their needs. In Wanjiku's case, Odinga's rally helped her make up her mind. Because he was the first candidate to commit to meeting the activists’ demands, he won her vote.
"They want somebody who will care for them," she said. "Not a tribe, but a person who is caring."