Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus – officially named SARS-CoV-2 – appears to affect especially the elderly and those with pre-existing chronic conditions and weakened immune systems, including those living with HIV.
That’s why, for those who do not know their HIV status, getting tested is crucial to surviving the Covid-19 virus, says Dr Seithati Molefi, deputy chief of party at healthcare NPO, Right to Care.
“Having a suppressed immune system means your body will not be able to fight Covid-19 effectively. It is critical that you get tested to know your status so that you can start antiretroviral treatment (ART), should you be positive.”
HIV+ and on ART? No need to panic
If you’re living with HIV and are on ART, there’s no need for concern, as currently, you are not at an increased risk and are in fact likely more able to fight Covid-19.
“Patients who have stopped taking their ART are also at risk of severe disease and should ensure that they get back on their medication immediately.”
This stance is backed by infectious diseases specialist, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, who is also director of the Durban-based Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa and chairs the government's advisory committee on Covid-19.
“If an HIV-positive patient is on antiretrovirals, then their response will be pretty similar to what an HIV-negative patient’s response would be based on what we know from other infections,” Karim told Bhekisisa earlier this year.
Where to go for testing
Healthcare clinics and hospitals are essential services, so should be open for HIV tests, ART refills and all other important health services under any lockdown level, the organisation mentioned.
“Anyone who is seeking medical care during the lockdown will not get into trouble with the authorities, since healthcare is an essential service. It is also important that everyone continues to take their chronic medication so they are as healthy as possible,” Molefi explained.
Covid-19 and HIV tests at your home
Door-to-door Covid-19 screening has been taking place by the Department of Health and the Right to Care during lockdown. If you wish to be tested for HIV (while being screened for HIV), you may ask the healthcare worker as some of the teams offer HIV tests at no cost, and are completely confidential. If, however, they do not have an HIV test, they should be able to organise one for you.
“If you don’t know your HIV status, Right to Care and the Department of Health community counsellors will give you a respectful, free and confidential HIV test wherever you are comfortable: at your nearest facility, in your community or your home, making it easy for you to test, start treatment and stay on treatment.
"If you are in Ehlanzeni District, Mpumalanga or Thabo Mofutsananya District in the Free State and want to test, send a WhatsApp or phone Right to Care’s helpline on 079 851 2490,” explains Dr Chuka Onaga, deputy chief of party in Mpumalanga.
Collecting treatment during lockdown
The Department of Health CCMDD programme allows patients to collect their medication, including ARVs, from external pick up points. Collect & Go smart lockers, which eliminates queues, are located in communities in Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Free State, and are operational during the lockdown period. For a complete list of nearby locations, visit their website.
However, this option is only available to patients with stable conditions who are registered by their healthcare facility. As soon as your medication is ready for collection, you will get a one-time pin via SMS, which can then be used to access the locker and receive your two-month supply of medication.
Treatment cannot be undermined, says Mkhize
Speaking at a WHO Media Briefing on Covid-19 in Africa earlier this month, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize expressed his concern that over five million people are on ARV treatment in South Africa, and stressed that their treatment programme cannot be undermined.
“That’s going to create a new problem on the side, and as a result of that, therefore, we have encouraged and empowered our community workers to continue the message of the importance of continuing and getting your treatment,” he said.
Mhkize again on Monday raised concerns about people with co-morbidities: "As we prepare for the easing of lockdown regulations high risk age groups and those withco-morbidities such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiac disease, obesity and people living with HIV must take extra precautions and necessary steps to avoid possible exposure to Covid-19."