600 000 HIV/AIDS patients in KZN stopped ARV treatment during lockdown
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Durban - Concerns have been raised that 600 000 out of 1.4 million people with HIV and on anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment in KwaZulu-Natal stopped taking their medication during lockdown.
Speaking at the commemoration of World AIDS Day last week, KZN Health MEC Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu estimated 2 million people were living with HIV in the province with 1.4m supposed to be on ARV treatment.
She confirmed the department was trying to get people back on ARV treatment. Simelane-Zulu said between April and October, the department had traced 41 121 HIV patients and got them back on treatment.
She said community health workers were given a target to track and trace a minimum of four defaulters back to care per week.
“600 000 people need to be brought back to treatment,” said KZN Health spokesperson Agiza Hlongwane.
HIV/AIDS activist group, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), said the number of people who have discontinued their treatment was very concerning.
TAC national chairperson Sibongile Tshabalala said discontinued treatment might lead to an increase in the HIV infection rate.
“We cannot be sure that they are using condoms. Also, it means more people will get sick and die of HIV related illnesses,” she said.
Tshabalala said this placed a greater burden on a health system already crippled by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Social justice organisation Section27 said people living with HIV were three times more likely than normal to succumb to Covid-19.
Deputy chair of the KZN AIDS council and Section27 community mobiliser, Patrick Mdletshe, said it was very important for people living with HIV to continue their treatment as there could be long term health implications for those who discontinued ARVs.
He said they might become resistant to the regimen they were on and would need to be placed on different treatment.
“In South Africa, the majority of people are on first-line treatment. There is a second-line regimen available, but it is significantly more expensive and will therefore put pressure on health budgets,” Mdletshe said.
He said if people didn’t remain on treatment, the virus would no longer be suppressed and they could more easily spread HIV.
“It is critical that people remain on treatment if we are to reduce the incidence of HIV in this country,” Mdletshe warned.
Based on the Thembisa Model, a statistical tool used to model HIV prevalence, KZN was clearly at the centre of SA’s HIV epidemic, he said.
“It is encouraging that the department has brought people back on treatment. However, this has to be balanced against people who are living with HIV who do not know their status,” said Mdletshe.
The TAC said the number of people brought back on to treatment was not enough.
“We need all 600 000 people to be brought back to treatment. Moreover, we need all the people who are living with HIV to be initiated on treatment to fight the high infection rate in the country,” said Tshabalala.
She said friendly and accommodating health facilities would encourage more people to take their medicine.
Tshabalala added confidentiality was key and the stigma around the identification of people living with HIV on clinic cards should be addressed.
For healthcare workers to provide quality service to patients to win the fight against HIV, government had to ensure working conditions were favourable, she said.