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HIV patients more vulnerable to COVID-19 —UNAIDS

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) says people living with HIV are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

According to UNAIDS report released on Wednesday, studies from England and South Africa have shown that the risk of dying from COVID-19 among people living with HIV was double that of the general population.

UNAIDS in a statement stated that in sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to two thirds (67 per cent) of people living with HIV, less than three per cent had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as at July 2021.

“At the same time, HIV prevention and treatment services are eluding key populations, as well as children and adolescents.

“COVID-19 vaccines could save millions of lives in the developing world but are being kept out of reach as rich countries and corporations hold on tightly to the monopoly of production and delivery of supplies for profit.

“This is having a severe impact around the world as health systems in developing countries become overwhelmed, such as in Uganda, where football stadia are being turned into makeshift hospitals.

“Rich countries in Europe are preparing to enjoy the summer as their populations have easy access to COVID-19 vaccines, while the global South is in crisis.

“We have failed to learn the lessons of HIV, when millions were denied life-saving medicines and died because of inequalities in access. This is totally unacceptable,” the statement quoted Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS.

The statement said that the report showed how COVID-19 lockdowns and other restrictions have badly disrupted HIV testing in many countries which had led to steep drops in HIV diagnoses, referrals to care services and HIV treatment initiations.

It said that in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, for example, there was a 48 per cent drop in HIV testing after the first national lockdown was imposed in April 2020.

“There were also fewer new HIV diagnoses and a marked drop in treatment initiation. This occurred as 28 000 HIV community health-care workers were shifted from HIV testing to COVID-19 symptom screening.

“The report, confronting inequalities, shows that in 2020 the 1.5 million new HIV infections were predominantly among key populations and their sexual partners.

“People who inject drugs, transgender women, sex workers and gay men and other men who have sex with men, and the sexual partners of these key populations, accounted for 65 per cent of HIV infections globally in 2020.

“Key populations accounted for 93 per cent of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa, and 35 per cent within sub-Saharan Africa. However, they remain marginalised and largely out of reach of HIV services in most countries,” it said.

According to the statement, the report shows that many of the 19 countries that achieved the 90–90–90 targets by 2020 have been leaders in differentiated service delivery, where facility-based services are complemented by community-led services.

It noted that HIV testing and treatment had been scaled up massively over the past 20 years, while 27.4 million of the 37.7 million people living with HIV were on treatment in 2020.

“While HIV testing and treatment have been scaled up massively over the past 20 years, service gaps remain much larger for children than for adults,” it stated.

The report shows that in 2020, treatment coverage was 74 per cent for adults but just 54 per cent for children – leaving some 800,000 in the lurch.

It said that many children were not tested for HIV at birth and remained unaware of their HIV status, making it difficult to find and care for them.

“This is totally unacceptable,” it quoted the top UNAIDS official, noting that poverty and lack of schooling were also formidable barriers to health and HIV services.

The report showed how family planning services for women and voluntary medical male circumcision for men and boys, were much less likely to be accessed by people living in poverty.

“They are also a driver of migration, which severely impacts access to HIV services and puts lives in danger as migrants flee conflict and poverty in search of safety and economic security.

“Billionaires are sailing their yachts in the same Mediterranean waters that migrants are drowning in. How can we stand by and let this be the “new normal”.

“Poverty is also a driver of migration, which has been shown to severely impact access to HIV services and puts lives in danger as migrants flee conflict and poverty in the hope of safety and economic security.

“We must confront these horrific inequalities and put the emphasis back on respect for basic, fundamental human rights,” said the UNAIDS chief.

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