Spouses escape infection from HIV positive intact husbands

EDMONTON JOURNAL, Edmonton, Alberta, December 14, 2005.

HIV mystery in Kenya: Spouses escape infection

Mike Pflanz

KISUMU - Britain is funding a study into how tens of thousands of HIV- positive Kenyans have mysteriously not passed the virus to their husbands or wives.

Almost $840,000 was set aside from Britain's annual $8 million in HIV and AIDS grants to Kenya to research 160,000 "discordant couples" in Nyanza province on the shores of Lake Victoria.

Rates of HIV and AIDS are among the highest in the world along the lake's shores. Kisumu, the provincial capital, and its surrounding lowlands are some of Kenya's most densely populated regions. Local customs are thought to boost infection rates. The dominant Luo tribe have an aversion to circumcision and practise a tradition where if a husband dies, his brother inherits his wife.

Yet limited early surveys showed that up to 40 per cent of people with HIV in the area had not passed the virus to their partners, despite regularly engaging in unprotected sex over long periods of marriage.

The research echoes findings of an earlier study of Nairobi prostitutes who developed an apparent immunity to HIV despite being among the most at risk in a country where some 1.7 million carry the virus. Scientists are mystified.

"Essentially there are still great gaps in what we know about discordant couples, but we have been able to make some guesses," said Dr James Gesami, Nyanza's chief provincial medical officer.

"We have a lot of people who travel far to work, maybe they are only seeing their wives once every two months, even once a year, so they are having sex less. Maybe they are not being rough when they have intercourse, or maybe the survey was done at a time when new infections were at a low point."

"Whatever the reason, we want to make sure we reach as many of these discordant couples and get them tested so that we can counsel them if one is still negative, and keep them negative," said Marilyn McDonagh, Kenya program director for health for Britain's Department for International Development.

Mark Miser, a 25-year-old trader from Bondo, 95 kilometres west of Kisumu, first learned he was HIV positive a year after he married his wife, Judith, in 2000. At first he kept the news secret from her, and the couple continued to have unprotected sex.

"I was so afraid that if I told her, she would leave me," he told The Daily Telegraph.

"I knew there was such a chance she would get the illness. So we finally went for a test together in 2003. I did not tell her I already knew my status. To my surprise, she was negative. I just realized we were so lucky and we had to follow the rules to stop her getting HIV."


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