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KENYA: HIV Strain Among Gays Same as Strain in Heterosexuals

Isaiah Esipisu

NAIROBI, Jul 20 2010 (IPS) - Because of societal pressure and the criminality associated with men who have sex with men (MSM) in Kenya, Omondi Maina* married a woman. This is despite being involved in a homosexual relationship for the last 10 years.

David Kuria of the Gays and Lesbians Coalition of Kenya says hundreds of members of the coalition are married and hide their homosexuality. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

David Kuria of the Gays and Lesbians Coalition of Kenya says hundreds of members of the coalition are married and hide their homosexuality. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

And Maina is not the only gay man in Kenya having sexual intercourse with both a homosexual man and heterosexual woman.

New research has found that the strain of HIV among gays in Kenya is 100 percent similar to the HIV strain found in heterosexuals in the country. It is unlike the clearly defined strains of HIV found among homosexuals and heterosexuals in most countries.

The study released by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) found that MSM in Kilifi, a region along Kenya’s coast, have a HIV strain similar to the one found in female sex workers, as well as in the general public.

“The findings are a clear indication that sex within gays in Kenya is interlinked with female sex workers and the general public,” said Dr Mary Mwangome, the lead researcher of the study:‘Evaluation of HIV Type 1 Strains in Men Having Sex with Men and in Female Sex Workers in Mombasa, Kenya.’

David Kuria, the chairman of the Gays and Lesbians Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) says that hundreds of members of the coalition are married men and women, but on the side they engage either in homosexuality, or lesbianism.

“All gays in Kenya are stigmatised. And to avoid this, most of them end up marrying women to guise as being ‘straight’. Or even worse, because they do not want permanent heterosexual relationships, they end up hiring female sex workers for their friends to think that they are straight,” said Kuria, one of the most outspoken Kenyan gay activists.

And recent studies have shown that due to the sexual link between homosexual men and heterosexual women, the dangers associated with homosexuality are directly passed on to the general public.

“Anal sex is ten times riskier than vaginal sex in terms of HIV transmission. This puts MSMs at the highest risk of transmission, which is automatically transmitted to the general public if at all they engage in unprotected heterosexual affairs,” said Dr Preston Izulla, a health research scientist at the University of Nairobi.

It also means that homosexuality is not traded by foreigners alone. It is present among indigenous Kenyans. “We expected to find gays and female sex workers HIV strains commonly found in the Western World because of the tourism activities. But instead, we discovered that the strain found in most of the subjects was local, meaning that it was not contracted from foreigners,” said Mwangome.

The study involved 211 MSM, 96 percent of whom are Kenyan citizens and 148 female sex workers, 98 percent of who are Kenyans. Out of them 23 were found to be HIV-positive. Upon testing, 17 of them were found to have a pure HIV strain that is common in the general public, while the rest had a combination of strains that are well local.

The study confirms findings in the latest Kenya Aids Indicator Survey (KAIS) published in 2007. According to the survey, 65 percent of gay men who were interviewed confessed to being involved in another affair with a woman somewhere. As a result, 15 percent of new HIV infections in Kenya was found among gays.

A commercial sex worker in Nairobi told IPS that she had a husband, yet she was involved in commercial sex.

“I have been married for the past six months. But my husband ‘knows’ that I work in a Casino. He married me when I was a commercial sex worker, and am not planning to stop until we are financially stable,” said the 23-year-old who only wanted to be identified as Anita*. She works in a commercial sex outlet in Nairobi known as ‘Modern Green’.

But Mwangome says the findings have revealed “worrying trends” that cannot be ignored. “The fact that there is a relationship between female sex workers, gays and the general public means that a bigger population in the country is at risk of contracting HIV. This is because such minority groups which unfortunately operate in top secret have little access to intervention, yet the chances of infection are higher,” said Mwangome.

“Intervention in such groups should be made a policy issue in order to attract more attention,” she added.

According to Izulla, only one in 20 gays living with HIV has access to prevention, care and treatment services.

*Names have been changed.

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