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WHO warns of critical shortage of HIV drugs, due to coronavirus

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Twenty-four countries are facing critical shortages of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), used to treat HIV, the World Health Organization reported Monday.

The organization blames the shortage on the coronavirus, which the WHO says has disrupted supply chains used to obtain the drugs, the transportation systems that move them, and the medical systems that deliver them to patients. This could result in a 10-year setback for meeting goals set out for the global fight against HIV/AIDS, WHO officials said.

“We were already off track for the 2020 targets, but COVID-19 is threatening to blow us completely of course,” said UNAIDS’ executive director, Winnie Byanyima.

Around 8.3 million people in these 24 countries received ARVs in 2019, the WHO said. This represents about one-third of the people using this medication worldwide. Globally, 38 million people are infected with HIV.

A total of 73 countries reported having low stocks of the life-saving medication, in the WHO survey.

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Read more: WHO discontinuing trials of hydroxychloroquine, HIV drugs on COVID-19 patients

In many countries, Byanyima said, health workers testing for and caring for people with HIV have switched to fighting COVID-19, supplies of medicines and condoms have been disrupted because of lockdowns, and many health clinics have closed.

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Dr. Anton Pozniak, head of the AIDS conference and an HIV specialist at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, U.K., said many HIV patients have delayed seeking care out of fear of getting the coronavirus. Some are even afraid to have medicines delivered to their homes because “they don’t want the stigma of parcels and drugs arriving” that might reveal their HIV status, he said.

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Another conference leader, Dr. Monica Gandhi of the University of California – San Francisco, said that in her large HIV clinic, a smaller percentage of patients now have their HIV under control.

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“We’re very, very worried — profoundly worried,” about COVID-19 harming patients and efforts to curb the HIV, she said.

In May, another report from the WHO estimated that an additional 500,000 people could die in sub-Saharan Africa this year as a result of AIDS-related illness if access to ARVs was disrupted for six months.

That would mean a return to death levels last seen in 2008, “and I think we have to admit, we just can’t allow that to happen,” said Dr. Shannon Hader, deputy executive director of UNAIDS.

While ARVs do not cure HIV, the drugs can help a person live longer and also help to mitigate the spread of the disease from person to person. The WHO is concerned about an increase in the number of cases of HIV due to drug shortages.

Read more: HIV-AIDS taught us not to police a disease outbreak, say experts. Did the lesson stick?

The WHO also reported some good news: new infections fell by 39 per cent between 2009 and 2019, and HIV-related deaths fell by half.

However, the organization warns, that progress has stalled in the last two years, with both numbers hardly budging at all recently.

— with files from the Associated Press

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