COVID-19 is setting back the fight to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic by decades, the United Nations has warned, as the number of new infections has risen by as much as 72 per cent in some parts of the world.
An estimated 38 million people are now infected with the virus that causes AIDS, an increase of one million since 2018.
Further, restrictions imposed in attempts to stem the spread of Covid-19 could lead to more than 500,000 deaths in sub-Saharan Africa in the next year, owing to restricted access to treatment and sex education. Women and girls are the most affected in this region, accounting for 59 per cent of new infections in the past year. About 4500 teenage girls and young women are infected every week in sub-Saharan Africa, the UN estimates.
Although there have been reductions in new cases in some parts of Africa, HIV infections elsewhere have increased. UN data report a rise of 72 per cent in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 22 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa, and 21 per cent in Latin America.
The executive director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima, acknowledged that global progress towards eliminating AIDS was already behind targets before the coronavirus struck.
“Globally, there were still 690,000 AIDS-related deaths in 2019, and 1.7 million new infections. Our 2020 targets of reducing AIDS-related deaths to fewer than 500,000, and new HIV infections to fewer than 500,000, will be missed.
“Our progress towards ending AIDS as a public-health threat by 2030 was already off track before the Covid-19 outbreak. Now this crisis has the potential to blow us even further off course.”
The World Health Organization has carried out an international survey that shows that 73 countries had warned that they were at risk of running out of antiretroviral medicines used in the treatment of HIV, as a result of the pandemic.
The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, called on international leaders to learn lessons from the response to AIDS to improve their response to Covid-19.
“Like the HIV epidemic before it, the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing our world’s fragilities — including persistent economic and social inequalities and woefully inadequate investments in public health,” he said.
The UN is calling for a “people’s vaccine” for Covid-19, to ensure that any successful vaccine, plus treatments and tests, is patent-free and available to everyone.