On Jan. 5, police in Kericho, the heartbeat of Kenya’s tea industry, stormed the United States Military HIV Research Program clinic after hearing that a child had died there while donating blood. The claims proved false, Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper reports, but they intensified muttering about the facility engaged in research into the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.
According to the Daily Nation, allegations have been made of a blood-selling racket in which brokers, who included commercial sex workers, lure girls to “donate” blood at the clinic and then pocket the “transport fees” the girls receive. True, the newspaper quotes an unidentified source as saying, hundreds of people have donated blood at the facility for research or to know their HIV status and each of them received 1,000 shillings (about U.S. $12) to get back home. That’s not “selling blood,” the source is quoted as saying, because the donors were adults who signed consent forms. The money for transportation is justified because most of the donors “were quite sick and came from very poor backgrounds.”
Speculation and rumors are bound to fly when a heavily guarded medical facility employing U.S. Army officers, and to which journalists are barred entry, appears in a community. The U.S. Army’s involvement in medical research in Kenya is no secret. It began more than 40 years ago. Kenya is no stranger to world-class medical research. It’s as much a hub of medical research as it is of information and communication technology development. Nairobi, the capital, houses the Kenya Medical Research Institute, one of the world’s leading centers of excellence in human health research. KEMRI, as the institute is known, is a state corporation. Established under the Science and Technology (Amendment) Act of 1979, it comprises several research centers, each of which specializes in a nationally determined priority area, such as biotechnology, microbiology, infectious and parasitic diseases, and traditional medicine. It also has under its umbrella the Eastern and Southern Africa Centre of International Parasite Control and the KEMRI Graduate School of Health Sciences.
Last August, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded the first $7 million of a $35 million five-year grant to a joint project of KEMRI and the University of California, San Francisco, for the care and support of people affected by HIV/AIDS in Kenya. This month, the institute inaugurates the KEMRI Annual Scientific and Health Conference (Feb. 9–11) in Nairobi, where institute scientists will join other local counterparts to discuss each other’s research and findings in the context of improving the health of Kenyans.
Nairobi is also home to the African Medical Research Foundation, another top health development and research organization on the continent, born out of the still-operating Flying Doctors of East Africa Service launched by three British surgeons in 1957 in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro. AMREF’s mission is “to ensure that every African can enjoy the right to good health by creating vibrant networks of informed communities that work with empowered health-care providers in strong health systems.” The foundation’s Health Resource Centre is the biggest in sub-Saharan Africa; its Virtual Nursing School is one of the top nursing schools in Kenya; and its International Training Center, with its award-winning e-learning program, each year trains more than 10,000 health workers who serve in some of the most remote corners of the continent.
Then there’s the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit-Kenya, parent of the Kericho clinic stormed by police in January. Activated in 1969 to study trypanosomiasis, at the invitation of the Kenyan government, USAMRU-Kenya is categorized as a “special foreign activity” of Washington, D.C.’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. It’s affiliated with KEMRI through a “Cooperative Agreement.” Today, U.S. soldiers, Army civilians and contracted Kenyan doctors, nurses, scientists and laboratory technicians work at the unit to develop and test “improved means for predicting, detecting, preventing and treating infectious disease threats” to U.S. soldiers and civilians in East Africa. In addition to laboratories in Nairobi, the unit has field sites in western Kenya, including Kericho, that focus on malaria and HIV/AIDS.
With the establishment in 2008 of U.S. Army Africa as the Army service component command for U.S. Africa Command, USAMRU-Kenya now coordinates its missions with Army initiatives on the continent. This is a huge deal for U.S. Army brass. They say: “Gaining knowledge from medical soldiers already serving in Africa raises U.S. Army Africa’s ability to work toward its goal of bringing positive change to the continent. By building capacity within partner nations — to include working toward the detection, prevention and treatment of diseases — the U.S. Army also maintains valuable allies in Africa, key to supporting stability on the continent.”