Access to HIV medicine severely disrupted due to COVID-19: WHO

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) says access to HIV medicine has been severely disrupted because of COVID-19, with 73 countries reporting that they are at risk of ARV stock-outs.

The organisation has called on governments to double-up efforts to ensure that HIV/AIDS services are not interrupted with focus being shifted to COVID-19.

The call has been made at the opening of the 23rd International Aids Conference originally set to take place in Oakland and San Francisco in the United States.

38 million people are living with HIV while 11.5 million people have been infected with COVID-19 globally. Last year, 690 000 people died of Aids-related illnesses.

The United Nations agency, UNAIDS, warned that over half a million people will die of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa alone if HIV/AIDS services are disrupted for another six more months because of COVID-19. 

UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima says, “We’ve modelled with WHO and put out an alert that if these severe disruptions were to continue for another six months we could have 500 000 additional deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa. We can’t afford that. We could have a reversal on mother to child transmission taking us back to 10 years ago.”

“So keep both goals in the air, keep the services going for both diseases,” Byanyima urged.

The Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Ghebreyesus, says the organisation is deeply concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on HIV services globally and has called on governments to be creative about how they balance provision of services for HIV and COVID-19.

Ghebreyesus says, “But this is just the tip of the iceberg. While tackling COVID-19 is a global priority, we must not turn our backs on the 38 million people living with HIV and the millions more at risk of infection. Now is the time to redouble our efforts, build national unity and global solidarity to tackle both the COVID-19 pandemic and diseases like HIV.”

Byanyima says HIV/AIDS services should not be sacrificed for COVID-19.

“We were already off track to achieving our goals but now coronavirus is really blowing us completely off track and that’s a concern. We are seeing disruptions of services from the production through to the transportation and the logistics into countries because of border closures, within countries because of lockdowns. We are seeing disruptions because of re-purposing the HIV infrastructure built for years with people’s lives,” says Byanyima.

WHO and UNAIDS are urging donors to continue investing in both HIV and COVID-19 as efforts continue to find a vaccine and a cure for both diseases.