Global Health

COVID-19 pandemic could lead to HIV surge in West and Central Africa

A person receives a dose of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, as South Africa rolls out the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination to the elderly at the Munsieville Care for the Aged Centre outside Johannesburg, South Africa May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

A person receives a COVID-19 vaccination at an elderly care facility in Africa. Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Bate Felix
Energy Correspondent , Reuters
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  • The Executive Director of the UN AIDS agency has warned of a rise in HIV infections, related to the pandemic.
  • Around 200,000 people in West and Central Africa became newly infected with HIV last year.
  • New infections in the region are growing quickly among vulnerable groups.
  • The COVID-19 outbreak has stretched African health systems, forcing governments to divert scarce resources to tackle the pandemic.

West and Central Africa could see a rise in HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths in a few years due to disruptions in health services because of the coronavirus pandemic, the executive director of the U.N. AIDS agency said.

Although human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection rates, and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)-related deaths have been on a steady decline over the past decade, the region accounted for 22% of AIDS-related deaths in 2020.

Around 200,000 people in West & Central Africa became newly infected with HIV last year out of a global total of 1.5 million, the United Nations AIDS agency's (UNAIDS) data shows.

New infections in the region were growing fast among vulnerable groups that include young girls and women, gay men, sex workers, drug users and prisoners, who don't always have ready access to preventive measures and treatment.

a chart showing vaccine rates in different African countries
In the majority of African countries, vaccine rates remain low. Image: Our World in Data
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Winnie Byanyima said the jury was still out on the extent of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on HIV, but the agency is seeing examples of disruptions.

"We are quite worried that when all the data comes in for this year (2021), that we might see a spike in new infections, and over a few years we might see more deaths," Byanyima told Reuters on the sidelines of a health summit late on Tuesday.

"We are seeing across countries, a decrease in people receiving prevention, a decrease in people testing, and increasing numbers people falling out of treatments. These are not good signs, but we don't yet know what the impact will be on new infections and deaths," she said.

Health systems in the region have been stretched by the outbreak, forcing governments to divert scarce resources to tackle the pandemic, while measures to stop the spread, such as lockdowns, curbed access to HIV prevention and treatment.

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UNAIDS warned in July last year that the global fight against AIDS had been faltering even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pandemic was threatening to put hard-won progress against HIV back by 10 years or more.

Byanyima urged other leaders to emulate Senegal's President Macky Sall who increased the health ministry's funding to fight HIV.

Sall directed Senegal's health minister during his closing speech to commit an extra 2 billion CFA francs ($3.5 million) to the ministry's 2021/2022 budget to the fight against HIV. ($1 = 570.5200 CFA francs).

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Related topics:
Global HealthAfricaCOVID-19Health and Healthcare
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