COVID-19 pandemic threatens to set back battle against AIDS by 10 years, UN warns

The global fight against AIDS was faltering even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the coronavirus now threatens to put progress against HIV back by 10 years or more, the United Nations said Monday.

“The global HIV targets set for 2020 will not be reached,” UNAIDS, the agency that co-ordinates the UN’s efforts to curb the spread of HIV, said in a report. “Even the gains made could be lost and progress further stalled if we fail to act.”

Four years ago, the United Nations set goals for limiting HIV infections and improving treatment by the end of 2020, and all will be missed because the coronavirus pandemic is hurting access to care, the report concludes.

The report said the coronavirus, which was officially identified in China in January of this year and was declared the source of a global pandemic by the WHO in March, has already “seriously impacted” the AIDS fight, with lockdowns and travel and trade disruptions delaying or halting HIV treatment and testing.

In many countries, said UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima, health workers testing for and caring for people with HIV have switched to fighting COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus; supplies of medicines and condoms have been disrupted because of lockdowns; and many health clinics have closed.

Latest data from 2019 show that 38 million people worldwide are now infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, the report said, a million more than in 2018.

The United Nations agency reported last year’s numbers at the start of an international AIDS conference.

“Every day in the next decade, decisive action is needed to get the world back on track to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030,” Byanyima said.

Some 25.4 million HIV-positive people were on antiretroviral treatment in 2019. That’s a huge advance on a decade ago, the agency report said, but it means 12.6 million people are not getting medicines that can keep the virus at bay and prevent its spread.

The report says just over half of children and teens with HIV are getting treatment compared with 67 per cent of adults.

Pakistani villagers wait outside a hospital in Ratodero for blood screening for HIV in May 2019. During the pandemic, many health workers usually dedicated to testing for and caring for people with HIV have switched to fighting COVID-19. (Fareed Khan/The Associated Press)

“We are making great progress against the HIV epidemic … but the bad, bad news is that kids are lagging behind,” said Dr. Shannon Hader, deputy executive director of UNAIDS.

There were 690,000 AIDS-related deaths in 2019. That’s down 39 per cent from 2010 but short of the target of under 500,000 by the end of this year. Children accounted for 95,000 of those deaths.

Far behind goals in preventing new infections

The report also found the world is far behind in preventing new HIV infections, with 1.7 million new HIV cases in 2019, down from 23 per cent since 2010 but far short of the 75 per cent reduction goal.

Eastern and southern Africa have greatly curbed new infections, according to the report, but they’re rising elsewhere — by about 20 per cent since 2010 in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and 72 cent in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

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The UN agency report says a six-month complete disruption in HIV treatment could cause more than 500,000 extra deaths in sub-Saharan Africa over the next year, bringing the region back to levels of AIDS death rates last seen more than a decade ago, in 2008.

A World Health Organization survey found that 73 countries are at risk of running out of HIV medicines and 24 have critically low stocks.

“Access to HIV medicines has been significantly curtailed” since the coronavirus pandemic began, said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We must not turn our backs on HIV while fighting COVID-19.”

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