COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa Threatens HIV Population

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SEATTLE, Washington — The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States announced that the HIV community is not statistically more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 if regular HIV treatments continue. COVID-19 in sub-Saharan Africa affects people of all stories and backgrounds, yet the virus continues to impact HIV and AIDS patients significantly.

HIV and COVID-19

The collected data on COVID-19 infection and the casualty rates of people living with HIV draws from multiple countries’ healthcare reports. There is still not enough data to conclude whether or not those diagnosed and prescribed treatments for their HIV have heightened risk for COVID-19 compared to those without HIV. However, some reports are showing that treatment can reduce some higher risks. This excludes the large population of HIV patients who do not have access to necessary treatments or any defenses for their health’s vulnerable state.

If left untreated, HIV will gradually damage the immune system and lead to death. While there is no cure for HIV, there are successful medical treatments available to give patients longer and healthier lives, like antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART treatment protects the immune system’s function and lowers the amount of HIV in the body. A person without HIV treatment will continue to lose infection-fighting cells, making them the perfect target for COVID-19.

COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa

Global documentation of HIV and AIDS completed in 2018 found that 38% of the world’s population living with HIV did not have the opportunity to receive treatment. The majority of this population lived in low-income countries. When compared globally, 68% of people diagnosed with HIV are from sub-Saharan Africa. COVID-19 is a global pandemic that infects millions, hitting older populations and those with immune deficiencies the hardest. Doctor Paul K. Drain from the Schools of Medicine and Public Health, University of Washington and Department of Global Health published a report describing the considerations of COVID-19 in HIV positive communities. 

According to Dr. Drain’s report, the first documented cases of COVID-19 in sub-Saharan Africa started near the beginning of March 2020. Nearly a month later, travelers from South Africa returned to Italy testing positive for coronavirus. Even though other African countries became exposed weeks prior, South Africa endured a far more rapid spread. Drain reported more than 400 cases, surpassing the number infected in the already exposed countries. Both Drain and his colleagues expect coronavirus to spread into all sub-Saharan countries. They caution global COVID-19 relief teams working in these regions to prepare for higher morbidity and mortality rates due to the already HIV-endemic setting.

Stopping the Spread of COVID-19

The International AIDS Society and the CDC support considering that the effects of untreated HIV may jeopardize a person’s chance of fighting off COVID-19. Dr. Drain proposes these solutions:

  • COVID-19 testing needs to be present in both community-based and clinical settings. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends direct care at community levels to speed up health outreach. Not only is testing important in decreasing mortality rates but it is also a top research priority in assessing the situation’s severity.
  • Gathering medical supplies and increasing the distribution of HIV ART treatments for people diagnosed and still untreated is necessary. Sub-Saharan Africa’s mortality rate of HIV-associated tuberculosis decreased partly in response to providing the HIV community with a treatment regime. Drain hopes to mirror those results in the coronavirus pandemic believing if more people can receive HIV medicine to protect their immune system, they will be less likely to contract the disease.
  • The public health response needs to learn from HIV’s history and provide additional resources to combat COVID-19 in sub-Saharan Africa. During the early years of the HIV epidemic, healthcare facilities were overwhelmed with the high demand of patients needing treatment; they exhausted their medical resources. If COVID-19 response diverts resources from HIV facilities, it puts at-risk people and untreated HIV patients at a higher likelihood of contracting COVID-19. This jeopardizes HIV’s progress in lowering mortality rates.

Looking to the Future

Since COVID-19 is a serious disease, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) advises all people living with untreated HIV to take extra preventative measures. UNAIDS recognizes locations such as sub-Saharan Africa having weaker healthcare systems and adjusts accordingly.

During the coronavirus pandemic, UNAIDS works with community partners and local governments. In efforts to protect the higher-risk HIV population, UNAIDS conducts large surveys to determine what information low-income countries need to become informed about the pandemic. The survey also collects data about which medications are available, necessary testing services and whether there is easy access to global service support networks.

UNAIDS announced its mission to work with high HIV-endemic counties to identify methods in providing continuous and protective HIV treatment for diagnosed citizens. Additionally, UNAIDS outlined preparations to protect against HIV service disruption.

Sub-Saharan Africa may be on the cusp of having the largest coronavirus infection rates. The population density of untreated HIV patients brings a greater chance of death. Doctor Paul K. Drain and the Joint United Nations Programme on the interrelatedness of HIV and COVID-19 present key factors when deciding the overall outcome for those living with HIV in these countries.

– Grace Elise Van Valkenburg
Photo: Flickr

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