Tomorrow, Tuesday December 1, Zimbabwe joins the world in commemorating World Aids Day. Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) executive director Itai Rusike says with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the country, there is a high possibility that HIV prevention and treatment could be disrupted. He speaks to NewsDay supplements editor and health journalist Phyllis Mbanje (ND).
ND: Tell us about the World Aids Day which will be commemorated tomorrow. What exactly is it about?
IR: Every year, on December 1, the world commemorates World Aids Day. The theme for this year is Global Solidarity, Shared Responsibility. On this day, the world unites to show support for people living with and affected by HIV, and to remember those who lost their lives to the epidemic.
This year is another opportunity to demonstrate solidarity, realising that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the provision of HIV services, treatment and care putting more people at risk, including those in Zimbabwe.
ND: Are there any efforts that have been made towards prevention and treatment of HIV?
IR: Numerous efforts, investments of resources as well as research and development have led to immense progress in prevention, treatment and care to defeat HIV.
The recent study results showing the effectiveness of long-acting injectable medicines for preventing HIV among women; the positive opinion on the effectiveness of the Dapivirine vaginal ring to reduce the risk of HIV infection for women add to the progress made towards defeating the disease.
According to UNAids, globally, increased access to HIV treatment has averted around 12,1 million Aids-related deaths since 2010. This victory calls for celebration as it has led to significant reduction of HIV transmission and related deaths. The progress, though remarkable, has been unequal, notably in expanding access to anti-retroviral therapy.
ND: What has been the impact of COVID-19 on HIV patients?
IR: Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting HIV prevention, treatment and care services as well as reversing gains made to defeat the disease.
According to UNAids, a six-month complete disruption in HIV treatment could cause more than 500 000 additional deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa, which includes Zimbabwe over the next year (2020–2021), bringing the region back to 2008 HIV mortality levels.
Adolescent girls and young women continue to face unacceptably high risks of HIV infection in high-burden countries. Data from UNAids shows that, every week, globally, around 5 500 young women aged 15–24 years become infected with HIV.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been exacerbated by lock downs and prolonged periods being out of school, which has led to early marriage, female genital mutilation, gender-based violence and reduced enrolment of girls in schools increasing their vulnerability.
More than ever, there is need for urgent and relentless efforts by the governments, including the Zimbabwe government, donors, private sector, civil society and communities. This will help sustain efforts to defeat HIV and to mitigate the knock on effects of COVID-19 on HIV to avert new infections and deaths.
ND: What is necessary for a successful HIV and Aid country response?
IR: The leadership and engagement of communities is necessary for a successful HIV response.
Community involvement and solidarity have been paramount in providing people affected by HIV with information, services, social protection and hope. There is need for this kind of solidarity by all stakeholders to defeat HIV. Putting people at the centre of HIV and COVID-19 response and grounding efforts in human rights and gender-responsive approaches are key to ending the two diseases. Realising the extreme vulnerability of young women and girls, there is a need to scale up prevention programmes for adolescent girls and young women for their prevention, care and treatment services.
A multi-disciplinary approach that includes enabling girls to complete their secondary education protects them against HIV and yields multiple social and economic outcomes for advancing health, gender equality and development. In the HIV and COVID-19 response, investments in health should help build back better; for desired health outcomes that also build self-esteem, offer dignity and guarantee the human rights of citizens.
ND: Are you happy with the 2021 $54,7 million allocation in the national budget? Do you think it will adequately solve health issues, particularly HIV and Aids?
IR: There is need for greater commitment to health through increased allocation of domestic and international resources for health and the efficient allocation and use of the resources.
This will help defeat HIV and COVID-19 and prevent further loss of gains towards the critical fight against HIV. Efforts to defeat the two diseases must guarantee that everyone, everywhere, has access to the healthcare they need whenever they need it.
No one should be left behind because healthcare is a human right whose access should not at all depend on a person’s financial prowess.
The COVID-19 crisis is a wake-up call, an opportunity to invest better and together for desired health outcomes. Largely, the defeat of HIV as a public health threat and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 3 on the health and wellbeing for all are dependent on how well COVID-19 is tackled.
Follow Phyllis on Twitter@pmbanje