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December 1, 2020

‘New approaches being used to protect health on HIV treatment’

Islamabad

December 1, 2020

Islamabad : During lockdown measures, it became difficult for People Living with HIV (PLHIV) to get to health facilities; for outreach workers to reach out to key populations; and for health services to cope with COVID-19 alongside other diseases. The HIV services workforce has been depleted either due to redeployment in the COVID-19 response or the COVID-19 infection. This has put many PLHIV at risk of not receiving their life-saving medications and services on time. However, many new approaches have been adopted to ensure provision of HIV care during the pandemic.

Views to this effect were expressed Monday by the WHO Representative in Pakistan Dr. Palitha Mahipala, who issued a statement on the subject in connection with World AIDS Day 2020, which is globally observed on December 1 each year. This year’s regional theme focuses on ‘Resilience of HIV Services.’

“We have worked tirelessly to respond to COVID-19 and ensure that affected essential health services, including HIV prevention, diagnosis and treatment are least disrupted,” Dr. Palitha stated. “There are many new approaches that WHO is adopting to ensure HIV care during the COVID-19 pandemic; for example, providing multi-month dispensing of HIV medicines and courier distribution and virtual support groups to protect the health of people on HIV treatment and to reduce the burden on stretched health services,” he informed.

Dr. Palitha reaffirmed WHO’s commitment to support the efforts of the government and other stakeholders including civil society organizations and PLHIV to strengthen health systems to increase their resilience. He said, the challenges and disruption have revealed a lack of resilience in our health systems, including HIV programmes. “Our goal is to help the country build stronger, more networked and more integrated HIV health services which remain strong when faced with emergencies. Preoccupation with an emergency should not deter us from maintaining essential health services for those who need them,” he stated.

World AIDS Day was intended to be a milestone year for achieving the global 90-90-90 targets because by 2020, the aim was to ensure that 90% of people living with HIV knew their status, 90% of people with diagnosed HIV infection received treatment, and 90% of those receiving treatment were virally suppressed. “We were already behind on these global targets and then came COVID-19, which has threatened to reverse many gains made in the health sector. We have worked tirelessly to ensure that affected essential health services, including HIV prevention, diagnosis and treatment are least disrupted,” Dr. Palitha said.

COVID-19 has come at a critical time for the HIV epidemic in Pakistan. There are an estimated 190,000 people living with HIV (PLHIV) and the epidemic is evolving on an unprecedented scale. In the year 2019 alone, 25,000 new HIV infections occurred in the country—a 75% increase compared to the baseline year of 2010. Yet, only one-third of PLHIV in the country have been diagnosed and only 15% are accessing antiretroviral therapy.