By Daniel Wesangula
Kenya is the first African country to start using a generic version of the latest AIDS drug that can improve and prolong the lives of tens of thousands of people who suffer severe side effects and resistance to other treatments.
A generic of Dolutegravir (DTG), first approved in the United States in 2013, is being given to 20,000 patients in Kenya before being rolled out in Nigeria and Uganda later this year, with the backing of the health agency UNITAID.
DTG is the drug of choice for people with HIV in high-income countries who have never taken antiretroviral therapy before and for those who have developed resistance to other treatment.
“I had constant nightmares and no appetite,” said Nairobi resident Doughtiest Ogutu, who started taking the drug this year because of her resistance to other treatments.
“My appetite has come back… My body is working well with it.”
Ogutu, who has been living with HIV for 15 years, said her viral load – the amount of HIV in her blood – has fallen tenfold from 450,000 to 40,000 since she started on DTG.
Sub-Saharan Africa has been at the epicenter of the HIV epidemic for decades and home to nearly three quarters of all people with HIV/AIDS.
UNAIDS aims for 90 percent of people diagnosed with HIV to receive antiretroviral treatment by 2020.
The brand name version of DTG is Tivicay, produced by ViiV Healthcare, which is majority-owned by GlaxoSmithKline.
About 15 percent of HIV patients are resistant, which means the medicines do not work on them, said Sylvia Ojoo, Kenya country director for the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who is monitoring the introduction of DTG.
UNITAID works to bring medicines to market quickly and to reduce manufacturing costs by allowing generic companies to access patents for a small royalty and produce them cheaply for the developing world.
Kenya, with one of the world’s largest HIV positive populations, has made great strides in addressing HIV in its public medical facilities.
“The health systems we have in place allow for rapid deployment,” said Ojoo. “It makes it relatively easy to introduce new interventions.”
About 1.5 million Kenyans are HIV positive, with more than two-thirds on treatment, said Martin Sirengo, head of Kenya’s National AIDS and STI Control Program.
The number of new infections in Kenya has almost halved over the last decade to 80,000 a year, he said, thanks to increased testing, treatment and awareness.