The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has criticised those it described as rich countries and big corporations for allegedly monopolising the manufacturing and distribution of coronavirus vaccines.
The global agency accused them of deliberately doing so for profit at the detriment of underdeveloped and developing countries.
UNAIDS made this allegation in a statement issued on Wednesday after the launch of its 2021 Global AIDS Update.
The report highlights evidence that people living with HIV are more vulnerable to COVID-19, but that widening inequalities are preventing them from accessing COVID-19 vaccines and HIV services.
The report, which is titled; “Confronting inequalities,” notes that studies from England and South Africa have found that the risk of dying from COVID-19 among people living with HIV was double that of the general population.
It said in sub-Saharan Africa, which is home to two thirds, that is 67 per cent of people living with HIV, only less than 3 per cent had received, at least, one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by July 2021.
“At the same time, HIV prevention and treatment services are eluding key populations, as well as children and adolescents.”
The report also revealed how COVID-19 lockdowns and other restrictions have badly disrupted HIV testing, noting that in many countries, the development has led to steep drops in HIV diagnoses, referrals to care services and HIV treatment initiations.
For instance, it noted that In KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, there was a 48 per cent drop in HIV testing after the first national lockdown was imposed in April 2020.
The statement said; “There were also fewer new HIV diagnoses and a marked drop in treatment initiation. This occurred as 28,000 HIV community healthcare workers were shifted from HIV testing to COVID-19 symptom screening.
“In 2020, the 1.5 million new HIV infections were predominantly among key populations and their sexual partners. People who inject drugs, transgender women, sex workers and gay men and other men who have sex with men, and the sexual partners of these key populations, accounted for 65 per cent of HIV infections globally in 2020.
“Key populations accounted for 93 per cent of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa, and 35 per cent within sub-Saharan Africa. However, they remain marginalised and largely out of reach of HIV services in most countries.”
According to the report, many of the 19 countries that achieved the 90–90–90 targets by 2020 have been leaders in differentiated service delivery, where facility-based services are complemented by community-led services.
It said most also included key populations as central to their responses.
“In Estonia, for example, the expansion of comprehensive harm reduction services was followed by a 61 per cent countrywide reduction in HIV infections and a 97 per cent reduction in new HIV infections among people who inject drugs,” it added.
800,000 children living with HIV not on treatment
Meanwhile, UNAIDS said HIV testing and treatment has been scaled up massively over the past 20 years, noting that about 27.4 million of the 37.7 million people living with HIV were on treatment in 2020.
However, it noted that gaps in service provision are much larger for children than for adults, explaining that in 2020, around 800,000 children aged 0–14 years who were living with HIV were not on HIV treatment.
“Treatment coverage was 74 per cent for adults but just 54 per cent for children in 2020. Many children were not tested for HIV at birth and remain unaware of their HIV status, making finding them and bringing them into care a major challenge,” the statement further revealed.
Meanwhile, the United Nations agency said COVID-19 vaccines could save millions of lives in the developing world “but are being kept out of reach as rich countries and corporations hold on tightly to the monopoly of production and delivery of supplies for profit.”
It said the development is having a severe impact around the world, adding that health systems in developing countries have become overwhelmed.
UNAIDS gave an example of Uganda where it noted that football stadiums are being turned into makeshift hospitals.
“Rich countries in Europe are preparing to enjoy the summer as their populations have easy access to COVID-19 vaccines, while the global South is in crisis,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS.
“We have failed to learn the lessons of HIV, when millions were denied life-saving medicines and died because of inequalities in access. This is totally unacceptable,” she added.
The report also identifies poverty and lack of schooling as formidable barriers to health and HIV services, adding that this shows how family planning services for women and voluntary medical male circumcision for men and boys are much less likely to be accessed by people living in poverty.
“In 2020, the number of voluntary medical male circumcisions dropped by more than 30 per cent in 15 priority countries in eastern and southern Africa.”
It added that women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa continue to be at a higher risk of HIV infection, and that gender inequality and gender-based violence are at the centre of that risk.
“Billionaires are sailing their yachts in the same Mediterranean waters that migrants are drowning in,” said Winnie Byanyima. “How can we stand by and let this be the “new normal”. We must confront these horrific inequalities and put the emphasis back on respect for basic, fundamental human rights.”
She said the inequalities are not naturally occurring but that they are the result of policy and programmatic actions that divide rather than include.
“We are 40 years into the fight against HIV. Both the successes and the failures have taught us that we cannot prepare for or defeat a pandemic unless we tear down inequalities, promote people-centred, rights-based approaches and work together with communities to reach everyone in need,” said Ms Byanyima.
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