COVID-19 causes major interruption in global HIV progress


The imperfect storm globally and in the U.S.

“One of the things that was striking in the report was the decline in the number of people reached with testing and prevention services,” Chris Beyrer, MD, MPH, the Desmond M. Tutu Professor of Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said in an interview. Dr. Beyrer was not involved in the report’s development.

“You know, a 10% decline in 1 year to reach people in need is substantial,” he said. “Let’s say it continues; many people are predicting that we won’t have reasonable coverage for low-income countries with COVID until 2023. That adds up to a substantial decline in people reached with these services.”

Dr. Beyrer also expressed concern about the convergence of HIV and TB in already overburdened, fragile health care systems. “Globally, the No. 1 cause of death for people living with HIV is TB, and of course, it’s highly transmissible. So, in many high-burden countries, children are exposed, typically from household members early on, and so the number of people with latent TB infection is just enormous.

“If you look at the report, the worst outcomes are MDR-TB. Those multidrug-resistant and extensively-drug-resistant strains are really a threat to everybody,” Dr. Beyrer said.

But it’s not time for U.S. providers to rest on their laurels either. Dr. Beyrer noted that the 22% decline in HIV testing reported by the Global Fund is similar to what has been happening in the United States with elective procedures such as HIV testing and even preventive procedures like medical male circumcision.

“It’s very clear here in the Global Fund data that the majority of new infections worldwide are in key populations [that] include gay and bisexual men, men who have sex with men, transgender women who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, and sex workers of all genders. Those are people who already faced barriers to health care access and were made worse by COVID.”

Dr. Beyrer noted that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2019 in the United States, 68% of new HIV infections occurred in gay and bisexual men, and the effect that COVID-19 will have is still unknown. He also noted the similarity between the most marginalized populations in the Global Fund report and African American men, who have not realized the same increase in the use of preexposure prophylaxis or the same decline in new infections as have their White counterparts.

“It’s also where we are seeing the worst of COVID, low immunization coverage, and high rates of hospitalization and death. ... It’s a dark, dark time for many,” Dr. Crowley said. “And there has also been some amazing resilience and adaptation. The weird thing is, the HIV platform is a natural platform; I mean, if we can keep 21.9 million people on treatment, we can probably deliver them a COVID test and a vaccine.”

Dr. Crowley and Dr. Beyrer report no relevant financial relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.


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