COVID-19 could lead to the deaths of half a million HIV-positive people in Sub-Saharan Africa if interruption to HIV and TB services continue. That’s according to the UN agency for HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), which is holding its virtual 51st Union Conference on Lung Health. Speakers are discussing the impact of COVID-19 on other illnesses and healthcare in general.

There are fears that the global COVID-19 pandemic will reverse progress made in fighting and managing other life-threatening diseases like HIV and TB.

UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director Shannon Harder says, “Modelling that WHO and UNAIDS did projects that a six-month interruption of HIV treatment alone in sub-Saharan Africa could lead to massive loss of lives, 500 000 additional deaths this year alone bringing us to 2008 death levels. This could mean losing a decade of progress in just one year.”

She says in the past 10 years they’ve made great progress in reducing the impact of TB on people living with HIV, even though TB remains the leading cause of death among people living with HIV.

“We had about 208 000 deaths among people living with HIV from TB in 2019. That’s 33% of all AIDS deaths. The good news is this is down from over 570 000 deaths in 2010. TB used to cause nearly half of all AIDS-related deaths – that’s a 63% reduction in deaths from TB since 2010 but even with that we are not doing enough and properly treat active TB among people living with HIV, with half of HIV/TB cases still being missed this year.”

Director for the TB Department at the Union for Lung Health, Grania Brigden, says while COVID-19 has come with challenges, there are also lessons to be learnt.

“The HIV response has long shown us the benefits of having a partnership approach between community, government and the research sector. And the TB response is moving in that direction quickly. In contrast, as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic the most vulnerable and the most disproportionately affected by the novel coronavirus do not yet have a voice. There is an important lesson to be learnt here.”

The World Health Organisation says it welcomes the steady progress made towards eliminating TB globally.

WHO’s Assistant Director-General for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Ren Minghui says currently 10 million are infected with TB annually, with 1.4 million deaths each year.

“Over the last few years, the number of people with TB and deaths has been declining but not fast enough to achieve our TB remission targets. The WHO report also signals important advanced reasons and hope the number of people treated for TB has grown since the UN high-level meeting in 2018 with over 15 million people treated by the year 2019.”

Earlier this week, former US President Bill Clinton called on governments to test people for Tuberculosis when they test them for COVID-19 to reach the maximum number of people who may be infected with both.