UN agencies estimate 5,00,000 deaths in Africa from HIV due to Covid-19 disruption

Hemani Seth Mumbai | Updated on May 12, 2020

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS on Monday released a joint report stating that a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy owing to Covid-19 could lead to over 500 000 additional deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020–2021.

A modelling group convened by the agencies has estimated that a lack of efforts to mitigate and overcome interruptions in health services and supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic can cause additional deaths from diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis in Africa.

“There is a risk that the hard-earned gains of the AIDS response will be sacrificed to the fight against Covid-19, but the right to health means that no one disease should be fought at the expense of the other”, said Winnie Byanyima, the head of UNAIDS.

UNAIDS is the UN body created to combat the diseases and eradicate it by 2030.

“The Covid-19 pandemic must not be an excuse to divert investment from HIV”, Byanyima said.

“People would continue to die from the disruption in large numbers for at least another five years, with an annual average excess in deaths of 40% over the next half a decade. In addition, HIV service disruptions could also have some impact on HIV incidence in the next year,” according to the report.

“The terrible prospect of half a million more people in Africa dying of AIDS-related illnesses is like stepping back into history,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

In 2018 an estimated 25.7 million people were living with HIV and 16.4 million people, 64 per cent of the population, were taking anti-retroviral therapy in sub-Saharan Africa. As HIV services are either closed or are unable to supply anti-retroviral therapy owing to supply disruptions caused by competing needs to support the Covid-19 response, these people are now at higher risk according to the report.

“Doctors are able to control a person’s HIV load through treatment, bringing it to an undetectable level, keeping that person healthy and preventing onward transmission of the virus. However, when antiretroviral therapy is not conducted regularly, the viral load increases, impacting the person’s health and increasing the risk of transmission. The disruptions could also increase the risk of mother to child transmission of HIV.

“We must read this as a wake-up call to countries to identify ways to sustain all vital health services. For HIV, some countries are already taking important steps, for example ensuring that people can collect bulk packs of treatment, and other essential commodities, including self-testing kits, from drop-off points, which relieves pressure on health services and the health workforce. We must also ensure that global supplies of tests and treatments continue to flow to the countries that need them,” the WHO Chief said.

Published on May 12, 2020

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