Fighting AIDS in Obama’s Ancestral Land

A chronicle of daily life in Kenya's Nyanza Province paves the way for medical breakthroughs.

A road in Kogelo (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)
A road in Kogelo (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) — World AIDS Day is approaching, and it’s time, once again, for an accounting. In the roughly 30 years since the disease was recognized, more than 25 million (pdf) have died from it. An estimated 34 million (pdf) are living with it; 2.5 million new infections are recorded each year.

There has been progress. As anti-retroviral medications become more widely available, more of those infected live longer. The yearly rate of new infections has declined.

Much of the research behind those successes takes place in sub-Saharan Africa, where 69 percent of those living with HIV reside. Few people know that many of President Barack Obama’s Kenyan relations and hundreds of thousands of their neighbors in the Nyanza Province of western Kenya play a pivotal role in this research, in partnership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Two Nations, One Fight

For 33 years the CDC, the government agency that warns Americans about flu epidemics and disease outbreaks, has had an outpost in Nyanza. It was founded in 1979 as a small malaria-research station with the Kenya Medical Research Institute. After the AIDS epidemic emerged as a major problem in the 1980s, CDC/KEMRI broadened its mission to include AIDS and other diseases.

In 2003 the George W. Bush administration and a bipartisan Congress created the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief and the President’s Malaria Initiative, giving the U.S. a leading global role in the fight against AIDS and malaria. The massive U.S. foreign aid machinery started humming, and billions of dollars began to pour rapidly into Africa for research, treatment and prevention. In 2009 President Obama announced the Global Health Initiative as a follow-up to PEPFAR and PMI. All told, the U.S. has committed $63 billion to this effort through 2017 (pdf).

Today the CDC’s largest overseas research station is in Nyanza. After South Africa, Kenya is the biggest recipient of PEPFAR and GHI funds, receiving more than $500 million a year, much of it funneled through CDC/KEMRI. The Nyanza facility employs more than 1,000 people, most of them Kenyan. Its list of collaborators reads like a who’s who in infectious-disease research and includes the National Institutes of Health, USAID, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the Gates Foundation, Merck Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline and the Global Fund, plus dozens of universities and medical schools around the world.

Understanding the Challenge

There is no denying that PEPFAR and now GHI have altered the course of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, and that the CDC’s muscular presence in Nyanza has benefited local communities. Efforts like the one in Nyanza and similar foreign aid efforts, though, frequently have a hidden difficulty.