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UN warns of COVID-19’s effect on HIV treatment

July 9, 2020

In March 2020, the Jamaica Observer reported Dr Jennifer Brown Tomlinson, medical director at Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL), urging people living with HIV to ensure that they take their medication daily.

A compromised immune system, Dr Tomlinson cautioned, may not be able to function at its optimum to fight against the coronavirus.

Said Dr Tomlinson: “People living with HIV who are on their antiretroviral medication have the same risk [of contracting the novel coronavirus] as the normal population. All of the precautions that are being advised for the general population also apply to people living with HIV who are adherent to their antiretrovirals.

That very sound advice takes on more relevance now as we are being told by health experts that COVID-19 could cause an additional half a million AIDS deaths if treatment is disrupted long term.

That chilling projection was made Monday at the start of the virtual International AIDS Conference at which it was noted that the COVID-19 pandemic was jeopardising years of progress against HIV.

The United Nations (UN), in its annual report, pointed out that the world was already way off course in its plan to end the HIV/AIDS threat before the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to the UN, despite the fact that AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 60 per cent since the peak of the HIV epidemic in 2004, approximately 690,000 people still died from the virus and 1.7 million people were infected last year.

There are now almost 40 million people living with HIV worldwide.

The emergence and spread of the novel coronavirus now means that the UN’s target of reducing AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections to fewer than 500,000 this year will now be missed.

A key contributor to that danger is that the pandemic is impacting access to preventative medicine among communities at risk because of lockdowns and distribution difficulties.

A report from the UN conference tells us that one model run in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that if COVID-19 measures disrupted HIV treatment programmes for six months it could leave an additional 500,000 people dead.

Indeed, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is reported as saying: “We cannot let the COVID-19 pandemic undo the hard-won gains in the global response to this disease.”

The information coming out of the UN conferences should not be lost on the just over 32,000 people living with HIV in Jamaica. Those who are not compliant with their medication need to heed Dr Tomlinson’s advice. In fact, anyone living with HIV should not, in the first place, be in a position of non-compliance.

As it now stands, our health authorities, and indeed the Government, need to ensure that the COVID-19 pandemic does not result in a shortage of antiretroviral medicines here.

For, while, as we have already stated, we are disappointed that Jamaica will not meet the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS 90-90-90 target, which was set to be attained this year, we are encouraged that JASL has already achieved one of the targets and is close to the 2020 goal of having 90 per cent of its more than 730 HIV-positive clients virally suppressed.