As Nigerians join the rest of the global community to mark the 2021 World AIDS Day, which is celebrated on every 1 December, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, has called governments to prioritize investment in health funding for community-led, human rights-based, and gender transformative responses.
The theme of this year’s World AIDS’ Day, “End inequalities. End AIDS. End pandemic” has particular resonance nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. Noting that global solidarity and shared responsibility are critical components of the kind of rights-based approach we need if we are to end HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.
Dr Moeti said: “We cannot adequately express our support for those living with HIV, especially within a context where we know that treatment and care have been negatively impacted across Africa by the demands of COVID-19. As we remember those who have lost their lives to AIDS this year, we also acknowledge the terrible death toll the Corona virus pandemic has taken and continues to take.
“Going forward, we cannot afford to lose focus on the urgent need to end the inequities that drive AIDS and other epidemics around the world. It has been 40 years since the first HIV cases were reported. Yet, in Africa and globally, it remains a major public health concern.
“Last year, two out of every three new HIV infections occurred in the African Region, corresponding to almost 2 500 new HIV infections every day. Sadly, AIDS claimed the lives of 460 000 people, or a shocking 1 300 every day, in spite of free access to effective treatment.
“The challenges notwithstanding, Africa has made significant progress against HIV in the past decade, reducing new infections by 43 per cent and nearly halving AIDS-related deaths. In the region, 86 per cent of people living with HIV know their status, and 76 per cent are receiving antiretroviral therapy”.
The Regional Director for Africa in his speech salutes Botswana, which is on the home stretch to eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission in what is a truly remarkable public health success. He added that only 16 countries have been certified for eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission, none of which had as large an epidemic.
He also noted that it has taken more than two decades of hard work by leaders, health workers and communities, illustrating what are possible when the health and welfare of mothers and children are prioritized.
“The continent as a whole is, however, unlikely to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030, after we fell short of the expected 75 per cent reduction in new HIV infections and 81 per cent reduction in AIDS-related deaths by 2020. Despite the very high percentages of people living with HIV who know their status, and treatment rates, new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths are not decreasing concomitantly.
“It remains critical for us to reach those who are fuelling the epidemic, addressing the persistent inequities in the provision of quality care and interventions. For instance, in West and Central Africa last “year, key populations and their sexual partners accounted for 72 per cent of new adult HIV infections. Yet punitive laws, policies, hostile social and cultural environments, and stigma and discrimination, including in the health sector, prevent them from accessing services, he explained”.
While narrating some stories about Sub-Saharan Africa, he said young women are twice more likely to be living with HIV than men. Noting that for adolescents aged 15 to19 years, three in every five new infections are among girls who don’t have access to comprehensive sexuality education, who face sexual and gender-based violence, and live with harmful gender norms. They also have less access to school than their male peers.
He said with COVID-19, people living with HIV appear to be at elevated risk for virus-related illness and death as nearly 70 per cent live in the WHO African Region, where only 4.5 per cent of people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We must ensure that everyone, everywhere, has equal access to HIV prevention, testing, treatment, and care, including COVID-19 vaccinations and services,” Moeti advised.