Some nongovernmental organizations and HIV/AIDS advocates in Kenya warn that one of East Africa's last remaining hunter-gatherer communities could be at an increased risk of HIV because of their isolation and lack of awareness, IRIN/PlusNews reports. Pattita Tiongoi -- a program officer with the Centre for Minority Rights and Development, which advocates for the rights of Kenya's indigenous people -- said that it is not uncommon for the Ogiek people, who number around 20,000, to be completely ignorant of HIV because there are no "campaigns at all directed at them." She added that the government does not "even have statistics about the prevalence amongst them."
According to IRIN/PlusNews, a majority of Ogiek continue to live in the Rift Valley, which has an HIV prevalence of 7% -- slightly lower than the national average of 7.4%. However, Daniel Kobei, executive director of the Ogiek People's Development Program, said that the government has sidelined HIV and other health issues to focus on other issues that affect the Ogiek, like landlessness and poverty. He said that literacy levels among the Ogiek are low, which means they likely would not benefit from traditional HIV campaigns and would require specially created messages. In addition, health services would have to be located closer to the Mau Forest to reach the people who remain there. Kobei said that people who seek out medical help must travel almost 40 kilometers, which is "a tiring walk for one who is living with the virus."
Experts say that there is an "urgent need" for HIV awareness campaigns that target the Ogiek community as more members leave the forest for urban settlements and rural plantations, where interaction with higher-prevalence communities can take place, IRIN/PlusNews reports. The Minority Rights Group International and CEMIRIDE conducted a study that found an increase in commercial sex work among single-parent girls and women in the community as a way to support themselves, which also was leading to an increase in the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Tiongoi said, "The initial lifestyle of being confined to the forest kind of shielded the Ogiek from HIV spread, but that lifestyle has been disrupted due to displacement. This is a small group of people that can easily be wiped out by (HIV) in just a few generations" (IRIN/PlusNews, 2/23).
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