Poverty, racism, and the changing climate remains the major social factors that are the main drivers of the 40-year HIV/Aids pandemic. Speaking during a plenary session at the 23rd International Aids conference, Matthew Chersich from Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute says the crisis of climate change has negative impacts on the HIV pandemic.
The harmful effect
“Climate change has impacts on HIV prevention, treatment and care such as reduced health and mental wellbeing in HIV-positive people. While there is also a decreased access and adherence to antiretroviral drugs for treatment prevention and prevention of mother-to-child transmission and overall risky sexual behaviours,” says Chersich.
According to Chersich, reproduction, growth, and survival rates of most microbes increase with temperature. Risks factors posed to humans by climate change include; direct exposure to high temperatures, risk of infection with climate sensitive pathogens, damage to health and other infrastructure from storms and wildfires, poverty and social disruptions from drought, food insecurity, migration, conflict and gender disparities.
“We must engage politically and galvanise coalitions as HIV scientists, activists and policy makers [who] have decades of experience in building powerful coalitions to tackle global health sessions. As we need to develop and test climate and health services by expanding the scope of HIV counsellors and related cadres to include climate and health services. We also need to apply the lessons learnt in the Covid-19 responses to the climate-sensitive infections,” says Chersich.
Chersich says that seasons and climate change have impact on the well-being of HIV positive people. Per World Health Organisation (WHO), “increased HIV vulnerability is often associated with legal and social factors, which increases exposure to risk situations and creates barriers to accessing effective, quality, and affordable HIV prevention, testing and treatment“.
Chersich says that gaps in knowledge among people and attitude towards climate change need to be addressed. Northwestern University sociologist Celeste Watkins-Hayes says inequality among races remains a worrying factor in the fight against the HIV pandemic.
“Majority of HIV cases in the United States are among black gay men. Black men currently experience the largest share of HIV in the United States. And over the years we have seen a decline in diagnoses among whites. African Americans continue to receive less income regardless of their level of income”, she says.
“Injuries of inequality are wounds and afflictions that produce, and are produced by, a socially compromised ability to protect oneself from harm. The movement to confront the Aids epidemic is a portrait in resilience that has led to one of the most extraordinary public health responses in history,” says Watkins-Hayes.
She says that there are 37,9 million people living with HIV, while only 81% know that they are HIV-positive, and the rest do not. Three out of five people living with HIV are on antiretroviral therapy while only 53% of people living with HIV have undetectable levels of the virus.
Possible solutions to explore
Watkins-Hayes says that more social research is needed to fight the HIV pandemic, while a plan is also needed to protect women. “At the moment we have two pandemics that can happen to anyone (HIV and Covid-19). A multi-layered plan is needed to protect women and to ensure that they are included in all research trials, while we also need to address social factors such as poverty, and imbalances.”
Chersich says: “We can have integrated family planning, HIV and environment services provided by community health workers.“
“And cash transfers to target vulnerable women and children for building resilience and for post-disaster recovery can also be a solution while we also need interventions to modify behaviours during periods of extreme heat. The HIV experience has made scientists and activists ideally suited to tackling new research questions as climate change is set to become a major health research and programme priority, with a funded research agenda.“ – Health-e News