Image credit: - Photo: 2020

The Forgotten HIV/AIDS Pandemic

Viewpoint by Somar Wijayadasa*

NEW YORK (IDN) – Since the first identification of HIV/AIDS in the United States of America (USA), in 1981, approximately 76 million people have been infected with HIV, and nearly 35 million people have died of AIDS — the highest global death toll of all time — and also one of the world’s most politicized, feared and controversial diseases in the history of modern medicine.

However, this year, the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) has thus far infected over 65 million and killed over 1.5 million people around the world.

COVID-19has not only anaesthetized us to everything else that happens around us but also affects HIV and other epidemics and diseases that kill millions of people around the world.

Today, the whole world is focused on how pandemics affect people’s lives and livelihoods, and how health is interlinked with other critical issues, such as reducing inequality, human rights, social and economic inequalities.

The World AIDS Day

Every year, on December 1, people commemorate World AIDS Day with a specific theme to show support for those living with HIV and to remember those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses. 

Therefore, despite difficult times, it is most appropriate that the United Nations Joint Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has selected “Global solidarity, shared responsibility” as the theme for this year’s World AIDS Day.

In her message on World AIDS Day, the UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said: “COVID-19 is threatening the progress that the world has made in health and development over the past 20 years, including the gains we have made against HIV.”

According to UNAIDS, since the start of the epidemic to the end of 2019, approximately 75.7 million people have become infected with HIV and 32.7 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

In 2019, 38 million people globally were living with HIV, 1.7 million people became newly infected and 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses.

It is startling to hear that every week, around 5,500 young women aged 15–24 years become infected with HIV, and that in sub-Saharan Africa, five in six new infections among adolescents aged 15–19 years are among girls. In 2019, women and girls accounted for about 48% of all new HIV infections.

At the 2016 United Nations High-Level Meeting on “Ending AIDS” countries pledged to increase the number of people living with HIV on treatment to 30 million by the end of 2020.

Treatment scale-up has been impressive with more than twice the number of people on treatment than in 2010. However, as of June 2020 there were only 26 million people accessing antiretroviral therapy — that is 4 million short of the target for the end of 2020.

Almost 40 years after HIV/AIDS was identified, and quarter-century after UNAIDS was created to provide a concerted effort to eradicate this deadly virus, current data is still behind expectations, and that it is terribly discomforting for me as the first Director and Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations in New York.

[Note: All HIV/AIDS statistics mentioned in this article are from UNAIDS.]

Devastating impacts of COVID-19

Apart from its power to indiscriminately kill people, coronavirus severely affects the provision of health services for other diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria that kill millions of people all over the world.

Last month (November 2020), in the height of COVID-19 deaths, a New York Times article headlined The biggest monster is spreading. And it’s not the coronavirus caused me to realize how the COVID-19 pandemic is having a serious impact on the most vulnerable communities worldwide and impedes progress on HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases.

The article reads as follows: “It begins with a mild fever and malaise, followed by a painful cough and shortness of breath. The infection prospers in crowds, spreading to people in close reach. Containing an outbreak requires contact tracing, as well as isolation and treatment of the sick for weeks or months. This insidious disease has touched every part of the globe. It is tuberculosis, the biggest infectious-disease killer worldwide, claiming 1.5 million lives each year”.

For example, HIV/AIDS kills nearly a million people and tuberculosis claims 1.5 million lives each year. Malaria still kills several hundred thousand people yearly, two-thirds of whom are children under five.

According to WHO, in 2016, malaria caused an estimated 216 million clinical episodes and 445,000 deaths. Despite popular misconceptions, these are not diseases of the past.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in sharp drops in diagnosis and treatment of other perilous diseases as many essential services (clinics and laboratories) are being diverted to fight COVID-19. 

In almost all countries, activities related to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria are being disrupted due to COVID-19 lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings of people, transport stoppages, resources diverted to the new virus, reluctance of health workers to attend to people suspected of having TB or malaria that often display similar symptoms as COVID-19.

And most importantly, almost all countries have been severely affected by its economic consequences – thereby limiting the vital human and monetary resources indispensable to maintain crucial healthcare services.

These are insurmountable barriers to HIV, TB and malaria patients who need to constantly gain access to medical attention, care and treatments.

According to scientists, “At the current rate, COVID-19 is killing about the same number of people every month as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined”.

Though the immense advancements in scientific research and treatment have thus far failed to find a vaccine to prevent HIV/AIDS, we finally have a ray of hope to eradicate COVID-19 thanks to the promising vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and a dozen others in the making.

As in the case of HIV/AIDS, the guiding aphorism for all pandemics has been “only if we end the pandemic everywhere can we end the pandemic anywhere”. The entire world has the same goal: the number of cases of HIV/AIDS, COVID-19 and all other diseases all over the world needs to go to zero.

Reminding this year’s theme for the World AIDS Day, Winnie Byanyima said: “Only global solidarity and shared responsibility will help us beat the coronavirus, end the AIDS epidemic and guarantee the right to health for all.”

She opined that “The COVID-19 pandemic must not be an excuse to divert investment from HIV,” and that “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”.

*Somar Wijayadasa, is an International lawyer who worked for IAEA and FAO (1973-1985), and was UNESCO delegate to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995, and was the Director of the UNAIDS New York Office, and simultaneously, Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000. [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 December 2020]

Photo: Somar Wijayadasa speaking on World AIDS Day at the UN – 1998.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 03 December 2020.

This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence. You are free to share, remix, tweak and build upon it non-commercially. Please give due credit.

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