2020 will forever be remembered as the year of Covid-19. Efforts to keep economies afloat, infection and death rates down, as well as to create a vaccine have been the primary focus worldwide. In the chaos, the progress made in the fight against HIV has been gravely threatened. And it appears that children will pay the highest price.
A warning that cannot be ignored
A Unicef report released last week shares a stark warning. In the battle against HIV our children are being left behind.
The report, Reimagining a resilient HIV response for children, adolescents and pregnant women living with HIV, revealed that last year a child or young person under the age of 20 was newly infected with HIV every minute and 40 seconds.
Unequal access to treatment
According to the report, 85% of mothers with HIV, and 62% of adults had access to life-saving treatments in 2019, while only a little more than 50% of children were able to access the same treatments. Last year, the virus took the lives of nearly 110 000 children.
“Even as the world struggles in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic, hundreds of thousands of children continue to suffer the ravages of the HIV epidemic,” said Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
“There is still no HIV vaccine. Children are still getting infected at alarming rates, and they are still dying from AIDS. This was even before COVID-19 interrupted vital HIV treatment and prevention services, putting countless more lives at risk,” she added.
85% of mothers with HIV, and 62% of adults had access to life-saving treatments in 2019, while only a little more than 50% of children were able to access the same treatments.Unicef report
A crisis worsened by Covid-19
The Covid pandemic has further exacerbated inequities in access to life-saving HIV services for children, teens and pregnant mothers everywhere.
In a recent Unicef survey of 29 HIV priority countries, one third responded that service coverage for children, adolescents and women living with and vulnerable to HIV is lower by 10% or more compared with pre-pandemic numbers.
In the months of April and May, coinciding with partial and full lockdowns, paediatric HIV treatment and viral load testing in children in some countries declined between 50-70%, and new treatment initiation fell by 25-50%.
Many lives could be lost to HIV in the battle to beat Covid-19
Recent modelling has estimated that a six-month complete disruption in HIV treatment could lead to more than 500 000 additional deaths from Aids-related illnesses.UNAIDS
According to the organisation, the lockdowns and border closures imposed to stop COVID-19 are impacting both the production of antiretroviral medicines and their distribution. This could potentially lead to increases in their cost, as well as supply issues.
Recent modelling has estimated that a six-month complete disruption in HIV treatment could lead to more than 500 000 additional deaths from Aids-related illnesses.
If services to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV were similarly halted for six months, the estimated increases in new child HIV infections would be 162% in Malawi, 139% in Uganda, 106% in Zimbabwe and 83% in Mozambique. An estimate for South Africa was not provided by UNAIDS, but with the second highest number of people living with HIV/Aids in the world, the figure could be very high.
Though the easing of control measures and the strategic targeting of children and pregnant mothers have successfully led to a rebound of services in recent months, challenges remain, and the world is still far from achieving the global 2020 paediatric HIV targets.
The role of business in fighting HIV
“Successful private sector leaders recognise that the well-being and security of the communities they serve are essential to their shared futures.”UNAIDS
The report calls on all governments to protect, sustain and accelerate progress in fighting childhood HIV by maintaining essential health services and strengthening health systems. But governments cannot do this alone; the corporate sector has a vital role to play.
Business cannot succeed unless societies are healthy,” says UNAIDS. “Successful private sector leaders recognise that the well-being and security of the communities they serve are essential to their shared futures.”
HIV/Aids threatens the communities in which every South African company operates, and our country’s young people are the future of our society and our economy. Our children must be protected, and in the battle against Covid-19, let us not lose sight of them.