It is nearly 40 years since the first reported case of HIV/AIDS.
The 32nd edition of the World AIDS Day was commemorated under an unprecedented norm occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over and above the adverse socio-economic impact that has been brought about as a result, the pandemic has especially affected the health sector and threatened to erode the gains made against AIDS over years.
A report by UNAIDS indicated that the global AIDS response could be set back by 10 years or more due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19 in HIV related services. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are fears that the HIV/AIDS epidemic may have accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2019, there were 38 million people living with HIV infection. One in five people living with HIV were not aware of their infection and one in 3 people receiving HIV treatment experienced disruption to the supply of HIV treatments, testing and prevention services, especially children and adolescents. In 2019, 690 000 people died from HIV-related causes and 1.7 million people were newly infected, with nearly 2 in three (62%) of these new infections occurring among key populations and their partners.
These numbers, it is feared, will significantly increase in 2020/2021 which will mean that the world will be missing the “90-90-90” targets for 2020, which were to ensure that: 90% of people living with HIV are aware of their status; 90% of people diagnosed with HIV are receiving treatment; and 90% of all people receiving treatment have achieved viral suppression. Missing these intermediate targets will make it even more difficult to achieve the end of AIDS by 2030.
The disruption in supply chains and breakdown in essential HIV services due to COVID-19 has made it difficult and in a number of instances dangerous for frontline health workers to deliver continuous HIV services to those that need it.
A WHO and UNAIDS modelling study showed that a six-month disruption in access to HIV medicines could lead to a doubling in AIDS-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020 alone.
Restriction in movement has made it difficult for people living with HIV to access services. Economic disruption and growing inequality caused by COVID could potentially make HIV services unaffordable or unobtainable.
According to WHO, as of July 2020, one third of people on HIV treatment had experienced drug stock-outs or interruptions in supplies.
However, these disruptions have also brought with it an opportunity for organizations programming around AIDS to re-evaluate and discern what HIV-related services are most important to prevent additional deaths and new HIV infections.
As the world continues to race against the clock to ensure that a global COVID vaccine is available to all at the earliest opportunity, Governments are also grappling with how they will recover the year lost and reverse the economic recession. What is clear is that an investment in health systems is fundamental and should be at the centre of any recovery and/or development conversation.
Thus, in doing so, agencies and companies involved in the work around ending HIV/AIDS should take advantage of this and strive to bring to the fore the lessons learnt on the “War on COVID” and strive to recover the ground lost in 2020.