Before Covid-19 came along, the HIV/Aids pandemic dominated the headlines. So has the coronavirus pandemic derailed the battle against another public health problem: the HIV, the virus that causes Aids?
The truth is, the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic cannot and should not derail the fight against Aids. Amid the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, as we commemorated World Aids Day on Wednesday, under the theme End inequalities. End Aids, it is an opportunity for every community to unite in the fight against HIV, show support for people living with HIV and remember those who have died.
World Aids Day reminds us that HIV, the virus that causes Aids, has not gone away and that collectively, there is the need to increase awareness.
Unlike Covid-19, there is still no vaccine for Aids. Like Covid-19, globally, the general response to HIV/Aids has been to reduce the rate at which the virus is spreading among the population by emphasising protocols such as abstinence (not having sex), not sharing needles and using condoms the right way every time you have sex.
Doctors encourage people to take advantage of HIV prevention medicines such as pre-exposure prophylaxis and post-exposure prophylaxis.
UN Aids (UNAids) says there is no doubt that the Covid-19 lockdowns have disrupted supply chains and accessibility of the cocktail of medications needed to prevent HIV infection from progressing into full-blown and potentially deadly Aids.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAids warn that even a six-month disruption in treatment could lead to a doubling in Aids-related deaths this year in places such as sub-Saharan Africa.
The WHO says people living with HIV, even those on antiretroviral therapy, are at higher risk of developing serious health complications following influenza. The risk is especially high in those who have very low CD4 counts or those who are not using antiretroviral therapy (ARVs). It is estimated that more than 2 million people in South Africa live with HIV and are not on antiretroviral medication.
UNAids says Covid-related loss of livelihood has also reduced the capability of people living with HIV to procure the drugs needed to manage the virus. This means we need global solidarity in confronting Aids and the provision of resilient HIV services amid the coronavirus pandemic.
According to UNAids last year, there were 38 million people worldwide living with HIV, 1.7 million of whom were newly infected. In South Africa, 7.7 million people live with HIV.
It is significant that the UN has targeted an achievement of “90-90-90” in the battle against HIV: 90% of those living with the virus are aware of their status, are receiving treatment and, among those being treated, viral suppression is attained. The target is in line with the UN objective of eradicating Aids by 2030.
So how can those with HIV protect themselves from the Covid-19 virus? The National Institute for Communicable Diseases advises people who live with HIV take the same preventive measures that are recommended for everyone else
. Get tested for HIV if you don’t know your HIV status;
. Start ARVs if you are HIV positive;
. If you are on antiretroviral therapy, take the medicine regularly;
. Anyone with respiratory symptoms such as a lasting cough or a fever to get tested for TB, and if they test positive for TB, to start treatment immediately;
. Educating everyone to understand how HIV and Aids is spread and what we can do to protect ourselves;
. Encouraging people to change their sexual behaviour and to practice safe sex at all times;
. Making condoms freely and easily available and educating people on how to use them; and
. Ensuring people understand their rights and the treatment options once they have been diagnosed.
Therefore greater knowledge about the transmission of HIV, the prevention of its spread, and the provision of support services to persons with HIV/Aids is everyone’s responsibility.
It is vital that we do everything we can to prevent HIV infections through openness, good communication and compassion.
Like Covid-19, the battle against HIV and Aids is not only for government, but for all South Africans.
. Dr Felleng Yende is CEO of the Fibre Processing and Manufacturing, FP&M Seta, which facilitates skills development programmes for 13 sub-sectors.