MSF responds to UNAIDS 2020 global report warning the world will miss its targets

Disruption to HIV services during COVID-19 pandemic could result in more preventable deaths

A patient receives a medical check-up from MSF Dr. Kirsten Arendse before being switched to an HIV treatment in which the government has ample supply. This means patients don’t have to return to the health facility for more than four months, keeping them out of clinics where they could possibly be exposed to other patients who have contracted the novel coronavirus.
South Africa 2020 © Barry Christiansen/MSF
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NEW YORK/GENEVA, JULY 6, 2020—As the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) released its 2020 Global AIDS Update today, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) remains concerned that COVID-19 will interrupt lifesaving care for people living with HIV/AIDS—a group at a higher risk of becoming severely sick if infected with COVID-19.

The new UNAIDS report shows that the world will miss critical 2020 targets, including the reduction by 50 percent of HIV-related deaths from 2015 to the end of 2020. This could be further exacerbated unless countries implement practices to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on HIV treatment services. For example, people with HIV should be able to get multiple months of treatment at one time to help reduce the number of trips they have to make to healthcare facilities, where they could possibly be exposed to other patients who have the novel coronavirus.

According to UNAIDS, 690,000 people died of HIV-related causes in 2019. While this is the lowest figure since 1993, it is still too high and means that the world is not on track to meet the 2020 target. Additionally, treatment coverage is still too low. By the end of 2019, 67 percent of people—25.4 million—in need of antiretroviral treatment (ARVs) to keep people with HIV healthy had access, which means 12.6 million people living with HIV were going without and are still in desperate need of treatment.

The report also shows mounting evidence from sub-Saharan Africa that people living with HIV and people with tuberculosis (TB) are at a higher risk of COVID-19-related morbidity and mortality due to their weakened immune systems and, in the case of TB, damaged lungs. UNAIDS also warned of the implications of disruptions to HIV services as a result of COVID-19.

Dr. Eric Goemaere, HIV/TB unit coordinator and COVID-19 project leader for MSF-South Africa, said today:

“Despite promises, the world will fail in its commitment to reduce HIV deaths by the end of 2020. The cost of not meeting these commitments are spelled out in 820,000 additional deaths, according to UNAIDS. What these numbers tell us is that HIV-related deaths are not declining fast enough, even before COVID-19. Now, we fear that with any disruption to HIV services due to the pandemic even more lives will be lost.

“We can’t afford to backtrack on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are long overdue in adequately addressing the unacceptable number of deaths of people living with HIV. We must make every effort to redouble our efforts on HIV, continue to scale up HIV treatment, and preserve the hard-won gains and lives saved. We can’t risk backsliding, as the progress to date is too precious not to preserve.”