Coronavirus pandemic slows Africa’s progress on HIV

HIV infection rates are declining in many African countries, and effective drugs are increasing the life expectancy of patients. But the coronavirus pandemic has meant a major setback in the fight against AIDS.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, more than half of the people under the supervision of Gilbert Tene have stopped going in regularly for their examinations, said the doctor, who works with AIDS patients at the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services , told DW. “Patients are reluctant to come to the hospital,” Tene said. “We need the patients in the hospital to continue with counseling, to give them drugs and to offer them any other support,” he said.

HIV-positive people with access to the right kind of drugs can live for decades without developing AIDS. If you do not use such medication, it can be fatal. South African doctor Zolelwa Sifumba said she witnessed such tragedies on a daily basis. “Members of the communities are dying in hospitals, leaving others afraid to seek medical attention,” said Sifumba, who is prone to patients in Kwazulu-Natal province. “Those who missed the follow-up dates of previously well-controlled conditions such as HIV, TB and other conditions are now dying because they were admitted late for several reasons, including the closure.”

This is even more evident in countries that have recently made great strides in the fight against HIV. In 2018, the United Nations Program on HIV / Aids (UNAIDS) reported that the number of new infections in East and Southern Africa dropped by 30% from 2010 to 2017. Mortality rates fell by 42% over the same period. Such rapid progress has not yet been recorded in other parts of the world. The idea of ​​eradicating AIDS by 2030 will remain utopian. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic is making things worse. “You see tremendous progress in the epicenter of this epidemic in East and Southern Africa,” said Winnie Byanyima, head of UNAIDS. “There you see the fastest progress, bringing down new infections, bringing down deaths, which is happening in the region most affected.”

Now UN analysts estimate that the global outbreak of coronavirus could cause 290,000 people worldwide. They estimate that 148,000 people could die from AIDS. Several factors are responsible for this projected increase. One is that HIV patients avoid hospitals. Another has to do with sexual violence. “We have data showing that violence against women and girls in many countries has peaked in a number of countries, and children from schools have been sent back home, in many countries,” Byanyima said. “Sexual violence against women and girls is one of the main drivers of the pandemic, especially in Africa.” This situation is exacerbated by the fact that fewer people, including pregnant women, are being tested for HIV during the coronavirus pandemic. This increases the risk that babies may be born with HIV or contract it through breast milk.

‘Insufficient measures’

The healthcare systems in many African countries are already struggling with a shortage of doctors and nurses. The coronavirus pandemic is now putting further pressure on these systems. Medical staff treat HIV-positive patients, people who have AIDS sufferers and now also those who have COVID-19. This puts doctors at a tremendous risk. “Inadequate measures to prevent infections and a lack of protective personal protective equipment lead to an increase in infections and deaths among medical staff, further increasing staff shortages,” Sifumba said.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM) may soon be. The GFATM – established in 2002 and bringing together various governments, companies and international institutions – contributes 20% of the global budget to the fight against AIDS. This year, the GFATM also started fighting the coronavirus. There are concerns that resources are being stretched too thin to fight two pandemics at the same time.

“My nightmare scenario here is that the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria is also dealing with COVID – but with the same amount of money,” said Peter Sands, head of the GFATM. “In which case we will make less progress with all four diseases and more people will die.”

It now depends on the different national governments that support the fund. One, a global campaign to eradicate extreme poverty and preventable diseases, estimates that the fund will need an additional $ 5 billion (€ 4.2 billion) to compensate for the finances spent on the coronavirus pandemic. Most countries are struggling with rising government debt as the pandemic continues. As such, it is uncertain whether they will be able to provide the necessary funds to continue the fight against AIDS.

Moki Kindzeka in Cameroon contributed to this report.


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