Gains in battle against HIV under threat

Gains in battle against HIV under threatA healthcare worker draws a drop of blood for an HIV test. Credit: UNICEF Ethiopia/ 2014/ Pudlowski

UNAIDS says the 90-90-90 targets for 2020 will not be met, citing COVID-19 as a major contributor to the delays

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Gains made in the fight against HIV are being wiped out. This was the gloomy picture emerging at the 23rd International Aids conference.

UNAIDS released a report titled Seizing the Moment: Tackling entrenched inequalities to end epidemics to delegates. The 2020 global update focuses on the latest data in the response to Aids. It also zeros in on the impact COVID-19 is having on people living with HIV.

“The report shows remarkable but highly unequal progress where the achievements are not shared equally. We are not going to meet the 2020 target.”, says Executive Director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima.

Impact on women and girls remains a concern

Treatment of marginalised people is falling by the wayside due to strict lockdown regulations. These came into place in March after the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

It emerged that the impact of HIV on women and girls remains disproportionate, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

New infections in Sub-Saharan Africa over global average

In 2019, 59 percent of new infections in the region were among women and girls. The report stated that 4500 females between the ages 15 and 24 years are infected every week.

This led to a total of 1.7 million new infections in Sub-Saharan Africa last year. This was over three times the global targets.

South Africa, Eswatini and Lesotho have made great strides towards achieving the 90-90-90 targets. Which is ensuring 90% of people living with HIV know their status, 90% are on antiretroviral treatment and 90% are virally suppressed.

Eswatini came out on top, reaching 95-95-95. This is despite being one of the countries with the highest HIV prevalence rate. It was 27% in 2019.

“Communities have taken the lead in us achieving these targets and we must make sure that no one is left behind. We are aiming for 100-100-100 and we thank our partners and donors for their support”, says Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini.

But Dlamini the rising number of COVID-19 cases could hamper this.

“COVID-19 could affect our treatment and prevention efforts. We have had to redirect resources for HIV towards COVID-19 but we are monitoring this through a structure that has been established to deal with pandemics”, says Dlamini.

Vulnerable groups are being left behind

Treatment of marginalised people is again falling by the wayside as many countries remain under lockdown. But Byanyima blames this squarely on poor planning by governments.

“The lockdowns instituted by governments were not thought through on the impact that they might have on vulnerable groups of the population. They have brought a much higher risk on women and girls, with an increased risk of being victims of gender-based violence (GBV) and being infected with HIV”.

Byanyima is urging governments to take a human rights approach.

“Human rights are critical in giving everyone their right to health and we are seeing the rights of people with HIV who are left behind and continue transmitting the virus. And these are important towards them reaching services”.

Gains in treatment could go back a decade

The report shows that 62% of new HIV infections were among minority groups and their partners. These were gay men, men who have sex with other men, sex workers, people who inject drugs and people in prison.

The criminalisation of these groups intensifies the problem. Some countries are changing this. Botswana and Gabon have recently decriminalised gay sex. But in 73 other countries it remains a crime. Sex workers are criminalised in 103 countries. The use of drugs is a crime in 108 countries.

The UNAIDS says HIV/AIDS treatment measures could go back ten years if resources are diverted away for more than six months.

“We have done some modelling and have found that if the disruptions continue for the next six months, we are seeing that at least 500 000 lives could be lost to HIV. A multi-sectoral approach, where communities are at the centre of eradicating the pandemic (COVID-19)”, she says.

Byanyima further urges donors to continue to fund HIV programs She says the private sector must also put human lives ahead of profits. – Health-e News