Covid-19 vaccine issue for people living with HIV
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Cape Town - As the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out enters its third phase, questions about a comprehensive plan for people living with HIV/Aids remain unanswered, leaving many in the dark.
Despite the great effort put into overcoming the coronavirus pandemic, people living with HIV feel that they’ve been marginalised, and little is being done to share information about the potential impact on the compromised immune system of a person who is HIV positive.
Wade Schaerer, who has been living with HIV for four years, said that while the efforts to secure the vaccines for the nation has been valiant, the estimated 7.7 million people living with HIV are still in the dark about the vaccine roll-out.
“Information regarding Covid-19 vaccination for people living with HIV is minimal. Additionally, at the beginning of the pandemic, many people living with HIV did not collect their ARV treatment due to lockdown restrictions and the misinterpretation of these regulations. With the recent unrest in South Africa, it was reported that medical warehouses were looted, leaving the largest ARV treatment programme compromised.”
“The unavailability of ARV treatments may lead to treatment interruption, which could subsequently lead to drug resistance that will eventually deteriorate a person's overall health, and this is of great concern as our families need to know that we will not be forgotten again.”
“We need to know, as a vulnerable community, whether we will be prioritised to receive Covid-19 vaccines when we should expect to receive it and how. I firmly believe that if the current vaccine inaction and apartheid continues, Covid-19, like HIV in the past, will become a disease of the less fortunate – of which at that point, it will be forgotten,” said Schaerer.
South African National AIDS Council (Sanac) spokesperson Nelson Dlamini said that although there is no known research looking into the number of fatalities of people living with HIV (PLHIV), the latest WHO findings showed that more than 15 000 people from 24 countries, including SA, living with HIV and hospitalised for Covid-19 suggest that PLHIV have an increased risk of severe illness and even death.
“From the onset, Sanac lobbied the government to, among other things, dispense a multi-month supply of medication to minimise the need for people to frequently go to health facilities during the pandemic. Earlier into the pandemic, reports from facilities across the country had indicated that HIV and TB services were somewhat compromised in an effort to prioritise Covid-19 response. Sanac then engaged the government to ensure that HIV and TB services are integrated with the Covid-19 response to avoid an upsurge of new HIV infections on the other side of Covid-19 pandemic.”
“Hence, Sanac continues to push that PLHIV should be prioritised in the country’s vaccination rollout plan, alongside people with other comorbidities that are classified as high risk, such as diabetes. SANAC also advises that people living with HIV should explore other measures to strengthen their immune systems, such as taking the seasonal flu vaccine,” said Dlamini.
Western Cape Health Department spokesperson Mark van der Heever said that the department would be scaling up HIV and TB programmes by initiating new clients and welcoming back ones returning after treatment interruptions while retaining those already in care.
“Health workers are tracking clients who have been lost along the cascade of care, providing medication and encouraging them to make appointments at their local clinics. Health workers are also expanding community screening and testing to include HIV and TB screening and reminding clients about adherence to medication and appointments during the pandemic.”
“The Department of Health has also identified intervention areas that will work towards the UNAIDS 90-90-90 strategies for HIV and AIDS and TB, to improve the lives of clients living with HIV and TB. These interventions, which are aimed at high prevalence geographic areas and key populations include HIV index client testing and self-testing, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and tuberculosis (TB).”
“The integrated focus on prevention, testing, treatment and adherence adopted by the provincial Department of Health will link all aspects of epidemic control in the province with the available resources. This will also enable health workers to be able to make the necessary referrals so that no one is left behind.”
Van der Heever added that the Western Cape would continue to champion its five focus interventions focusing on the prevention, testing, treatment, and adherence of HIV among key populations, including young girls and women, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and people who inject drugs.
“Only global solidarity and shared responsibility will help us beat Covid-19 in the coming months, and end the Aids epidemic by 2030,” said Van der Heever.