Panafrican News Agency

WHO says COVID-19-related service disruptions likely to cause thousands of extra deaths from HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa

Kigali, Rwanda (PANA) -  A modelling group convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNAIDS has estimated that if efforts are not made to mitigate and overcome interruptions in health services and supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could lead to more than 500,000 extra deaths from AIDS-related illnesses, including from tuberculosis, in sub-Saharan Africa.

The statement by the UN agency, made available Monday to PANA in Kigali, warned that gains made by some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV could be reversed, with new HIV infections among children up by as much as 104%
Official reports indicate that in 2018, an estimated 470,000 people died of AIDS-related deaths in the region.

Based on the new findings, the UN agency said there are many different reasons that could cause services to be interrupted - this modelling exercise makes it clear that communities and partners need to take action now as 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. 

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

Commenting on the new report, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the 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," he said.

For HIV, Dr Tedros noted that 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," he said.

Official reports indicate that an estimated 25.7 million people in sub-Saharan Africa 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 needs to support the COVID-19 response, it said.

The new research brought together five teams of modellers using different mathematical models to analyse the effects of various possible disruptions to HIV testing, prevention and treatment services caused by COVID-19.

Each model looked at the potential impact of treatment disruptions of three months or six months on AIDS mortality and HIV incidence in sub-Saharan Africa.

-0- PANA TWA/VAO 11May2020