NAC ups ART distribution to avoid HIV-related deaths during Covid-19

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By Anna Chibamu

THE National Aids Council (NAC) has intensified distribution of anti-retroviral therapy (ART) to clients to avoid unnecessary deaths during the Covid-19 period.

The response to HIV/AIDS had been ongoing for decades but this year, government increased its response strategies when Covid-19 broke out in March.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned this week that more than half a million people could lose their lives in the Sub-Saharan Africa region between 2020 and 2021 due to AIDS-related illnesses if disruption of the ART therapy goes unchecked.

In an interview with on Tuesday, NAC chief executive officer (CEO) Bernard Madzima said government was alert to programmes which already affected people’s lives such as HIV, malaria and anti-natal care for pregnant women.

“As much as we are in the Covid-19 environment, let us be alert to programmes that already affect people’s lives and such programmes as HIV, malaria and anti-natal care for pregnant women.

“Those programmes need not to go backwards in the new Covid-19 environment.

“NAC is working with communities, health institutions as well as Health ministry so that our clients do not suffer any prejudice as far as accessing ART commodities is concerned,” said Madzima.

The NAC boss however urged health centres to provide supplies of not less than three months per client to minimise travel as well as increase self-testing of HIV.

“Today (Monday) saw the release of new modelling on #HIV by the WHO and UNAIDS. It highlights the importance of taking immediate steps to minimise interruptions in health services and supplies of antiretroviral drugs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The cost inaction: COVID-19 related service disruptions could cause hundreds of thousands of extra deaths from HIV.

“The issue of counselling and testing of HIV should continue to happen. We are still alert to our vision to eliminate HIV infection, having zero deaths and zero stigma by 2030.

In a press statement, WHO raised concerns that, “Gains made in preventing mother-to child transmission of HIV could be reversed, with new HIV infections among children up by as much as 104%.”

A modelling group convened by WHO and UNAIDS recently estimated that if efforts were not made to mitigate and overcome interruptions in health services and supplies during Covid-19 pandemic, a six-month disruption of anti-retroviral therapy could lead to more than 500 000 extra deaths from AIDS-related illnesses, including from tuberculosis, in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2020-2021.

In 2018, an estimated 470 000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses in the region.

According to the modelling exercise, “the impact of a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could effectively set the clock on AIDS-related deaths back to 2008, when more than 950 000 AIDS-related deaths were observed in the region.

“People would continue to die from the disruption in large numbers for at least five years, with an annual average excess in deaths of 40% over the next half a decade.

“The terrible prospect of half a million more people in Africa dying of AIDS-related illnesses is like stepping back into history,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 25.7 million people are living with HIV and 16.4 million (64) were on ART therapy in 2018.

UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Bwanyimwa also warned that 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.”