UNAIDS report shows that people living with HIV face a double jeopardy, HIV and COVID-19, while key populations and children continue to be left behind in access to HIV services
People living with HIV are at a higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness and death, yet the vast majority are denied access to COVID-19 vaccines. Key populations and their sexual partners account for 65% of new HIV infections but are largely left out of both HIV and COVID-19 responses—800 000 children living with HIV are not on the treatment they need to keep them alive.
GENEVA, 14 July 2021—The UNAIDS Global AIDS Update 2021.
Studies from England and South Africa have found that the risk of dying from COVID-19 among people living with HIV was double that of the general population. In sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to two thirds (67%) of people living with HIV, less than 3% had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by July 2021. At the same time, HIV prevention and treatment services are eluding key populations, as well as children and adolescents.
COVID-19 vaccines could save millions of lives in the developing world but are being kept out of reach as rich countries and corporations hold on tightly to the monopoly of production and delivery of supplies for profit. This is having a severe impact around the world as health systems in developing countries become overwhelmed, such as in Uganda, where football stadiums are being turned into makeshift hospitals.
The new UNAIDS report shows how COVID-19 lockdowns and other restrictions have badly disrupted HIV testing—in many countries this has led to steep drops in HIV diagnoses, referrals to care services and HIV treatment initiations. In KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, for example, there was a 48% drop in HIV testing after the first national lockdown was imposed in April 2020. There were also fewer new HIV diagnoses and a marked drop in treatment initiation. This occurred as 28 000 HIV community health-care workers were shifted from HIV testing to COVID-19 symptom screening.
The report shows that many of the 19 countries that achieved the 90–90–90 targets by 2020 have been leaders in differentiated service delivery, where facility-based services are complimented by community-led services. Most have also included key populations as central to their responses. In Estonia, for example, the expansion of comprehensive harm reduction services was followed by a 61% countrywide reduction in HIV infections and a 97% reduction in new HIV infections among people who inject drugs.
HIV testing and treatment has been scaled up massively over the past 20 years. Some 27.4 million of the 37.7 million people living with HIV were on treatment in 2020. However, gaps in service provision are much larger for children than for adults. In 2020, around 800 000 children aged 0–14 years who were living with HIV were not on HIV treatment. Treatment coverage was 74% for adults but just 54% for children in 2020. Many children were not tested for HIV at birth and remain unaware of their HIV status, making finding them and bringing them into care a major challenge.