Kenya: Support Disclosure of HIV Status to Children

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Kenya: Support Disclosure of HIV Status to Children

Ignorance Threatens HIV Prevention and Treatment

NEW YORK - Children have the right to age-appropriate information about their
HIV status and should not be the last to find out that they are
HIV-positive, Human Rights Watch said on World AIDS Day, December 1,
2010. Human Rights Watch described its research in Kenya about the
subject and called on the Kenyan government to provide guidance to
health workers and parents on disclosure, which could start from the age
of 6, taking into account the child's maturity and the specific
clinical and social context.

Governments around the world need to create sound policies on supportive ways to disclose HIV status to children and adolescents as more children worldwide are tested for HIV and have access to anti-retroviral treatment (ART), Human Rights Watch said.

"Parents, caregivers, and health workers who avoid telling children
about their HIV status can do a lot of harm, unwittingly," said Juliane
Kippenberg, senior children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"They can shatter a child's emotional and physical health and carry
stigma about HIV to the next generation."

Human Rights Watch research in Kenya shows the disastrous effects of
poor disclosure policies. Children who do not know they are HIV-positive
may be less likely to take their medication regularly, which can lead
to drug resistance and death. Children who belatedly find out that they
are HIV-infected may be more likely to internalize stigma and feel
betrayed by those who hide their status. If adults withhold such
important information for years, children may sense a problem and live
in great anxiety. Some children are confronted with the news of their
illness through public comments from others, and experience trauma and

Approximately 180,000 children in Kenya are living with HIV, and
slightly more than 40,000 children are on ART. Most of these children
have been infected all of their lives through mother-to-child
transmission, yet parents and caregivers in Kenya often do not tell
their children that they are HIV-positive until they reach adolescence.
Human Rights Watch interviewed children between ages 8 and 14 who had
not been told of their HIV status, as well as parents and other
caregivers, health workers and counselors. 

Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children under age
18 have a right to information about their own health. But Kenya's
National Guidelines for HIV Testing and Counseling leave the
responsibility for disclosure with the caregiver and do not allow health
workers to disclose HIV-status to a child unless a parent or guardian
has given permission. The guidelines permit health workers to inform
children who are pregnant, married, or sexually active. In practice,
though, sexually active children do not always disclose this information
to health workers, and hence are not told if they are HIV-positive.

Denying older children information about their HIV status violates
the child's right to information and privacy, and the child's right to
voluntary, confidential HIV counseling and testing, Human Rights Watch
said. It also compromises the child's ability to participate in his or
her own medical care, an important part of the right to health.

"Many parents are reluctant to tell their children that they are
infected with HIV," Kippenberg said. "They want to protect the child
from the stigma they experience themselves, and mothers in particular
may feel guilty for having infected their children or worry that their
own status may become known."

Kenya should provide more support and information for parents about
how to tell their children they are HIV-positive, Human Rights Watch

Kenya's guidelines only cautiously encourage health providers to
"attempt to introduce age-appropriate information about HIV as early as
possible" and to "offer to assist with disclosure in case difficult
questions arise." Kenya's National AIDS/STD Control Programme (NASCOP)
has developed good training material on child disclosure, but few health
workers have been trained.  NASCOP is setting up a committee to deal
with the issues of child testing, counseling, and disclosure, a positive
move, Human Rights Watch said.

"Accepting HIV is more painful when children find out late,
particularly during adolescence," Kippenberg said." Children should be
told about their HIV-positive status in a supportive manner from an
early age, and counseled about prevention when they grow older."

Early disclosure is also necessary for prevention, Human Rights Watch
said. Many adolescents start having sex before learning about their
status, and they risk spreading the virus to others.

The World Health Organization has stated that "informing older
children of their diagnosis of HIV improves adherence," to taking
anti-retroviral medication and has recommended that children above age
10 should be involved in discussing HIV testing. It has also urged
governments to provide guidance to healthcare workers about the process
of informing a child of their HIV status, because "informing children
and disclosing their HIV status to them is a process best performed with
support from skilled health professionals." The American Academy of
Pediatrics encourages disclosure of HIV status to school-age children.

Human Rights Watch called upon the government of Kenya to:

  • Provide clear, accessible guidelines for disclosure of HIV status
    that recommend consideration of disclosure to children starting from age
    6, taking into account each child's cognitive and emotional maturity,
    family dynamics, and the clinical context;
  • Allow health workers to disclose HIV status to a child within these
    new guidelines if they judge the child to be ready, and if the child
    wants to know his or her status and has been appropriately counseled;
  • Provide counseling for parents and caregivers at HIV testing and
    counseling centers to overcome their concerns regarding disclosure and
    guide the disclosure process;
  • With the support of donors, train health workers at HIV testing and counseling centers on disclosure to children; and
  • Ensure that HIV/AIDS and life skills education programs take into
    account the situation of children living with HIV in addition to
    prevention methods, and that the programs are carried out in a sensitive

Nearly 90 percent of HIV-positive children worldwide live in
sub-Saharan Africa. The barriers the Kenyan government faces in
addressing the needs of children living with HIV and AIDS are similar to
those other Eastern and Southern African countries confront. In recent
years, important progress has been made in providing children with ART
in Africa, with nearly 300,000 children  now receiving the drugs there.
However, close to one million children on the continent still do not get
the life-saving drugs because they have not been tested for HIV, lack
transportation or adequate food, or have poor family support.

Personal Accounts From Kenya:

(Names of children, caregivers, and counselors are pseudonyms)

"We had a 13-year-old boy whose father was alive and HIV-positive,
but his mother died of HIV. The father stigmatized HIV. The boy was
positive but did not know, and the father did not want to disclose. The
boy came to us with a TB cyst and rashes.... ARVs  [anti-retrovirals]
eventually became available, but the boy never found out [his status],
because his father and aunt never told him. The boy refused to take his
medications. He died in 2009."

- Community counselor, Kayole, Nairobi, November 5, 2010

"My 5-year-old, Martha, is positive. She takes ARVs, but I tell
Martha that she needs to take the drugs for a chest infection and also
show her that I take the same drugs. Sometimes she doesn't want to take
them and says that she's healed, or says, "Drugs, drugs, drugs," or "Why
me only and not the others?" I have not received any training on
disclosure and I do not know of any place to get this training.
Community health workers have told me that I need to tell the child that
she is positive but they have not given me a way to do so."

- Mother of Martha A., Kayole, Nairobi, November 5, 2010

"My son is 10 and was told by his teachers at school that HIV
happened to people who had ‘bad manners'... He is HIV positive and I
have been trying to slowly disclose, but it is difficult because of the
wrong information he has gotten from the school. He was watching TV and
saw someone drinking alcohol and said, ‘That man has bad manners, he
will get HIV.' Then I asked him if he thought he could ever get HIV, and he said, ‘No Mom, I am a good boy I do not have bad manners.'"

- Hannah K., community health worker and parent, Nairobi, November 3, 2010

"My son David is 12, he doesn't know that he is [HIV] positive. He
takes ART... He [thinks] that it [is] because he had chest problems.
Sometimes he throws his drugs away. He is tired of taking drugs.... I
have thought of telling him that he's positive, but I am afraid that he
will hang himself or kill himself... David thinks that only adults have
HIV and kids are not supposed to [have it].... I asked him what he would
do if he was HIV positive and he said, ‘I will kill myself, I will take
poison.' If you can come up with a program to educate kids on HIV, it
will be better for me."

- Mother of David B., Kayole, Nairobi, November 5, 2010

"Two or three days ago Elaine found out that she was positive. She
overheard some people here... talking about it... She heard that the
medicines that she is taking are for people with HIV/AIDS.... For the
first two days [after this] she refused to take them [the drugs]."

- Mother of Elaine, age 12, Eldoret, August 19, 2008

"I was surprised [about my HIV-positive status] but not upset, I take
my medicines and I am healthy.  It is better to know your status so you
can avoid getting sicker and dying."

- James W., age 12, who was told about his disease by his mother, Kayole, Nairobi, November 5, 2010

"I felt very bad. I had no idea I had HIV. I didn't understand at
first. I wanted to know that I will not die, that I can have a family
and be loved. I have not told anyone at school, not even teachers.  But
it is better that I know, because I might be dead or very sick. I now
have [HIV] positive friends, and I can talk and sit with other children
at school because I feel better. Before, I was suffering alone, I was
ashamed of my illness and I ate alone at school [due to fingernails
breaking off, and other opportunistic infections]."

- Rose W., age 11, who was told about her status at age 9, and
recently joined a child support group, Kayole, Nairobi, November 5, 2010

"I would say any time the child starts asking questions about why I
am here, why am I taking these medications, is the right time to tell
the child. [Disclosure] can be a gradual process.... I would say this
can be from age 7 to 10. At the very least, a child above 10 should know
their status. There is a gap in training in the country on how to do
disclosure to children."

- Kenyan pediatrician, Eldoret, August 19, 2008

"There is a conflict of interest between the parents' needs and the
child's needs, but we need to disclose before the child reaches
adolescence because they run into very serious problems with adherence
[to ART]... The problem once you get to into adolescence, they feel
cheated if they are not disclosed. There is a loss of trust for adults
in their lives, they are not sure what they can believe."

- Professor Ruth Nduati, associate professor of pediatrics at the
School of Medicine, College of Health Sciences, University of Nairobi,
November 12, 2010


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