Ahead of World AIDS Day, which will be observed on 1 December, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a report which shockingly revealed that approximately once every hundred seconds, a child or young person under the age of 20 was infected with HIV last year.
This is indeed quite alarming, and should serve as a wakeup call for governments and international health partners to take urgent steps to combat childhood HIV. According to the report, prevention efforts and treatment for children remain some of the lowest among key affected populations, and in 2019, a little less than half of children worldwide did not have access to life-saving treatment.
The report states that nearly 320,000 children and adolescents were newly infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and 110,000 children died of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) last year.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore was quoted as saying that 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.
According to UNICEF, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened inequalities in access to life-saving HIV services for children, adolescents and pregnant mothers everywhere, and there are serious concerns that one-third of high HIV burden countries could face coronavirus-related disruptions.
Data from the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) cited in the report shows the impact of control measures, supply chain disruptions, lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and the redeployment of healthcare workers on HIV services.
According to the report, paediatric HIV treatment and viral load testing in children in some countries fell by between 50 and 70 per cent, and new treatment initiation by between 25 and 50 per cent in April and May, coinciding with partial and full lockdowns to control the novel coronavirus.
Further, it stated that health facility deliveries and maternal treatment were also reported to have been reduced by 20 to 60 per cent, maternal HIV testing and antiretroviral therapy (ART) initiation by 25 to 50 per cent, and infant testing services by approximately 10 per cent.
“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,” UNICEF states.
Back in July, UNAIDS had said that HIV targets set for 2020 would not be reached, owing in part to deeply unequal access to antiretroviral therapy and service disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
UNAIDS had also warned that the remarkable achievements made in the fight to end AIDS have not been shared equally within and between countries. It had pointed out that missed targets have resulted in more than 3.5 million HIV infections and 820,000 AIDS-related deaths since 2015 than if the world was on track to meet the 2020 targets. And the global AIDS response could be set back by 10 years or more if COVID-19 disrupts HIV services.
According to the report, the world is far behind in preventing new HIV infections. Some 1.7 million people were newly infected, reflecting more than three times the global target.
Guyana has made some amount of progress in the HIV/AIDS fight, but the health authorities must not become complacent. In order to sustain the advances made, the Government and international donor partners need to put more money and effort into ensuring that their HIV programmes can be sustained. More needs to be done to address the prejudice and social inequities that operate to make some people both more vulnerable to HIV infection and less likely to access prevention, testing, treatment and care services.
World AIDS Day brings together people from around the world to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and demonstrate international solidarity in the face of the pandemic. The day provides an opportunity for public and private partners to spread awareness about the status of the pandemic, and to encourage progress in HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care in high prevalence countries and around the world.
It is our hope that, even in the midst of a pandemic, the issue of HIV/AIDS would be given much prominence, and renewed efforts would be made to combat the dreaded disease.