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RPCV Neil Gagen backs Kenya AIDS battle
RPCV Neil Gagen backs Kenya AIDS battle
Danville man backs Kenya AIDS battle
By Taunya English
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
DANVILLE - Of the estimated 42 million adults and children living with HIV and/or AIDS at the end of 2002, 70 percent lived in sub-Saharan Africa.
Of the nearly 3 million AIDS-related deaths worldwide in 2003, 77 percent occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.
While the story of the AIDS epidemic in Africa has slowly surfaced in America's consciousness, Neil Gagen has been living and working in Kenya, a witness to the way those nearly incomprehensible AIDS statistics play out person-by-person, family-by-family.
Gagen, a De La Salle High School graduate who grew up in Danville, is a Peace Corps volunteer in East Africa.
In the last year, his work has included a partnership with the Tolosio Self Help Group, which includes nearly two dozen Kenyans who are HIV-positive.
Gagen, 26, is home for the holidays, visiting with family and catching up with friends. He's got a stack of pictures to share and stories about his work and the life he's created away from home.
The Tolosio group began with the courage of Moses Kimosop, 41, an HIV-positive Kenyan father of three.
After a near-death experience, Kimosop decided he could no longer be silent about his disease, despite the real social risks of revealing his HIV status.
Gagen, a University of Puget Sound alumnus, said he's been accepted and welcomed by the friends he works with, but he is keenly aware he's from another world.
"You don't have to go too far before you are the first white person the kids have seen," he said.
Not too different from America in the mid-1980s, Kenya is a culture that has shunned and shamed people with AIDS for many years. Gagen said HIV is often viewed as a moral failing, not a health concern.
Gagen said he'll never fully know the social isolation, the everyday affronts that Kenyan people with HIV experience.
Gagen said that of the nearly 30 million Kenyans an estimated 1.5 million have died of AIDS and another 2.2 million are living with HIV. Gagen said it is hard to understand how such a widespread disease could remain invisible, but the stigma has made AIDS in Kenya "a silent epidemic."
Kimosop sought out Gagen, where he was working with a local public health office, and together they began an outreach effort to speak with schoolchildren, churches and community groups about AIDS and HIV.
You might imagine Gagen, a sandy-haired man with matching mustache and goatee with posters and pamphlets in hand, heading out to preach the ABCs of HIV prevention: abstinence, being faithful and condoms.
In truth, he said, he and Kimosop had no literature, no funding. The public health office Gagen worked for had no organized anti-AIDS activities. The duo's strongest message was Kimosop's story. Amazingly they were well received.
Kimosop later founded the self-help group, and now local health clinics refer patients to the Tolosio Group when they first test positive for HIV.
The group has also won government grant money to help pay for school fees, food assistance or basic antibiotics to fight the opportunistic diseases that plague AIDS patients.
But because of politics and economic forces that reach far beyond Kenya, the grant money cannot be used for anti-retroviral drugs, which fight the HIV disease itself.
The cheapest drugs are $30 a month, far too expensive for most Kenyans, Gagen said.
In August, the 2003 De La Salle varsity football team raised $3,000 to help. The money will provide two years of HIV therapy to five Kenyans.
Gagen said he's watched as anti-retroviral therapy has allowed members of the Tolosio group to pick up their lives, return to work and take care of their children.
"Their lives changed 180 degrees," he said. He hopes other Kenyans will have the same chance.
To donate to the Kenya AIDS Project or to purchase anti-retroviral drugs for Africans with HIV, write to McDaniel Charitable Trust, 3685 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Suite 350, Lafayette, CA 94549.