Disruptions in healthcare services due to the coronavirus pandemic could lead to an extra 500,000 AIDS-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa by next year, more than doubling the death toll in 2018.
A modelling group convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNAIDS have suggested that six months of interrupted antiretroviral therapy could exacerbate suffering in a region where roughly 470,000 people died of AIDS-related complications in 2018.
In many places, HIV/ AIDS service providers are closed or are facing gaps in the supply chain, while some other health providers are unable to meet the needs of people living with HIV/ AIDS because they are busy responding to people with coronavirus.
If swift action is not taken, experts say the looming health consequences could compare to 2008, when more than 950,000 people perished due to AIDS complications in the region.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization said the terrible prospect of half a million more people in Africa dying of AIDS-related illnesses is like stepping back into history.
“We must read this as a wake-up call to countries to identify ways to sustain all vital health services,” said Dr Tedros.
“For HIV, some countries are already taking important steps, for example ensuring that people can collect bulk packs of treatment, and other essential commodities, including self-testing kits, from drop-off points, which relieves pressure on health services and the health workforce.
“We must also ensure that global supplies of tests and treatments continue to flow to the countries that need them.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 25.7 million people were living with HIV and 16.4 million (64%) were taking antiretroviral therapy in 2018.
Those people now risk having their treatment interrupted because HIV services are closed or are unable to supply antiretroviral therapy because of disruptions to the supply chain or because services simply become overwhelmed due to competing for needs to support the COVID-19 response.
Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS said the COVID-19 pandemic must not be an excuse to divert investment from HIV.
“There is a risk that the hard-earned gains of the AIDS response will be sacrificed to the fight against COVID-19, but the right to health means that no one disease should be fought at the expense of the other,” said Byanyima.