(AFP) — COVID-19 could cause an additional half a million AIDS deaths if treatment is disrupted long term, the United Nations said Monday in a warning that the pandemic was jeopardising years of progress against HIV.
At the start of a week of virtual International AIDS Conferences, the UN said the world was already way off course in its plan to end the public health threat even before COVID-19.
Although AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 60 per cent since the peak of the HIV epidemic in 2004, in 2019 around 690,000 still died from the illness.
Around 1.7 million people were infected last year, and there are now close to 40 million people living with HIV worldwide.
The UN’s annual report said that the 2020 target of reducing AIDS-related deaths to fewer than 500,000, and new HIV infections to under 500,000 will now be missed.
Millions of people had died in recent decades despite the existence of effective treatments, it said, calling on the world to learn lessons from the AIDS epidemic in its COVID-19 response.
“Like the HIV epidemic before it, the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing our world’s fragilities — including persistent economic and social inequalities and woefully inadequate investments in public health,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Key populations at high-risk of HIV/AIDS are being put in further danger as lockdowns and distribution of medicines leaves them “even more vulnerable than usual”, the report said.
Research released Monday showed the pandemic was already impacting access to preventative medicine (PrEP) among at communities at risk.
At one Boston medical centre, a survey of more than 3,500 patients on the PrEP programme showed that lapses in picking up repeat medication had risen 278 per cent in the first four months of 2020.
Year on year, the overall number of patients receiving PrEP had fallen 18 per cent, the research showed.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the findings were “deeply concerning”.
“We cannot let the COVID-19 pandemic undo the hard-won gains in the global response to this disease,” he said.
Observers are watching the pandemic’s progress in India closely, as that country manufactures 80 per cent of the world’s generic anti-retroviral medicine — any disruption in the supply chain will endanger HIV-positive communities.
One model run in conjunction with the World Health Organization showed that if COVID-19 measures disrupted HIV treatment programmes for six months it could leave an additional 500,000 people dead.
In addition, initial data from lockdowns around the world show spikes in abuse and domestic violence.
Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS executive director, said women and girls were especially vulnerable to sexual violence during lockdowns, and therefore at elevated risk of contracting HIV.
“We know that women who experience such violence are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV than women who have not experienced violence,” she said.
“Successful pandemic responses must be rooted in human rights, be evidence-based, community-led and fully funded. We must learn the lesson once and for all.”
New research over the weekend revealed that pandemic lockdowns were having a disproportionate impact on LBGTQ people, with a quarter of HIV-positive survey respondents reporting that they now lacked access to medicine due to confinement.