The World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) sounded the alarm on Monday regarding possible HIV-related deaths as a result of COVID-19.
The international groups say interruptions in health services and supplies during the pandemic could lead to 500,000 additional deaths in sub-Saharan Africa from AIDS-related illnesses, including from tuberculosis. That number would double the expected number of HIV-related mortalities; in 2018, approximately 470,000 died of AIDS-related illnesses in this region.
The half-million number pertains to deaths in 2020 and 2021, but "people would continue to die from the disruption in large numbers for at least another five years, with an annual average excess in deaths of 40% over the next half a decade," according to a statement from the groups.
If UNAIDS and WHO are correct in their estimates, COVID-19 would set AIDS-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa back to 2008 numbers, when nearly a million people died. Officials from the organizations specifically warn about disruptions to treatment for those living with HIV in this region of Africa, where about 64 percent of the 25.7 million HIV-positive people there are on an antiretroviral regimen.
In their announcement, WHO and UNAIDS pointed out that when treatment is adhered to, a person’s HIV viral load drops to an undetectable level, keeping that person healthy and preventing onward transmission of the virus. This concept is often referred to as Undetectable=Untransmittable, or U=U.
“The terrible prospect of half a million more people in Africa dying of AIDS-related illnesses is like stepping back into history,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said in a statement.
“We must read this as a wake-up call to countries to identify ways to sustain all vital health services. For HIV, some countries are already taking important steps, for example ensuring that people can collect bulk packs of treatment, and other essential commodities, including self-testing kits, from drop-off points, which relieves pressure on health services and the health workforce. We must also ensure that global supplies of tests and treatments continue to flow to the countries that need them.”